In Stained Glass a 50s-something reporter, who has been jaded by overexposure to media hype and is cynical about every aspect of his wretched life, is given an assignment by his aging mother to complete the memoir of his great-great-grandfather Christopher Dryden. In the early 1870s Christopher had been sent on a mission to the boisterous Gold Rush town of Barkerville, BC, where a fund-raising campaign to install a stained glass window behind the alter of St. Saviour's Anglican Church (flickr image at right by jmegjmeg) turned into a heated controversy when it was revealed that the anonymous donor, who was covering most of the cost for the painted glass, was none other than the owner of the town's most notorious brothel...

Monday, September 27, 2010

From Christopher Dryden’s Journal – St. Saviour’s

Praise be to God and the Holy Spirit. Glory to Christ the Redeemer, who fills my heart with joy.

The little church of St. Savour’s sits at the end of Barkerville’s main thoroughfare, framed by the rough-hewn hotels and storefronts of this pioneer village. One could not imagine a more rustic cathedral, or hope for a more remote parish in which to deliver the Word of God.

How Rev. Reynard managed to get this edifice built is beyond me. Bishop Hills informed me that the effort almost broke the man, and that Reynard and his family endured unspeakable hardships raising this temple in the wilderness. And yet the whole church could easily fit under the vaulted nave of Westminster Abbey, where it might serve as an example to those accustomed to comfortable pews of the true nature of Christ’s mission.

I feel I am at the capillary end of the Anglican Communion here. The pulse of evangelical zeal has pushed me from the heart of worship, across oceans, over an exceedingly rough and narrow road to this outpost of civilization. And here I shall stay until God’s work is done – or at least my minute portion of it.

And what a work it shall be!

Our usual sensibilities are confounded by this place. Angels may alight upon the town’s boardwalks refreshed, the sweet ether of heaven still filling their lungs; the weary human traveler stumbles out of the Bernard’s Express, his bones jarred and stomach churning after a most stupendous journey of some 350 miles. More than once, as we careered around sharp turns atop ghastly precipices, I prayed to you Lord to preserve me and my fellow passengers, that your servant might arrive at his destination in one-piece to begin Your ministry. I am told Mr. Bernard began his enterprise by conveying letters from Yale to Barkerville on foot – a mode that may have been considerably slower, but was most assuredly safer than riding in one of his coaches!

One mustn’t complain, though. And I am not complaining. God, You know that in my heart I give thanks for the blessings and the honours You have bestowed upon me. Your will is my desire, Lord, and wherever You send me I shall rejoice with Your Word on my lips.

The greeting party that met me at Bernard’s offices included Albert and Margaret Hewitt, prominent members of the community. He is a bank manager, she a tireless volunteer on various church committees. Also in attendance was Mayor P.J. Dearden and newspaper editor Alexander Allen. They wanted to convey me instantly to the Hewitt’s residence, where I was to spend the night. But begging their indulgence, I turned my steps instead toward Your church, Lord, toward the humble tabernacle raised by the hands of men in Your honour. My hosts seemed somewhat disconcerted by this alteration to their plans, Mrs. Hewitt even flashing an annoyed glance that bespoke the threat of lightening. I later learned that several more dignitaries lay in wait for me in her parlor, and that she was discomfited by my impromptu digression. But I would not be dissuaded by words or looks because I felt Your summons God.

My entourage tagged along as I strode up the main thoroughfare toward St. Saviour’s. I must confess, Lord, I wondered myself why You wanted me to turn this knot of upstanding citizens from their itinerary. What must they have thought of this contrary new priest, who had dropped into their midst? Nevertheless I placed my trust in You and put on a show of confidence because I felt You steering me in the direction we were taking. Your strong hands grasped my shoulders and urged me gently on. At the same time the Holy Spirit infused my heart with exceeding joy. Even though I could not say why, I insisted on this pilgrimage, knowing it was right that it be undertaken.

We made quite a sight, walking in procession down the dusty road. I kept up a brisk pace so that my companions – still doubtful at this turn of events – fell in behind. The late afternoon sun warmed my neck. From off to my right the clang of a smithy’s hammer assaulted my ears. People on the boardwalks stopped to stare. Laughter spilled out onto the street from the darkened doorway of a hotel saloon. I fastened my eyes on the wooden steeple of your church, which stood out bravely against the distant mountains, and a sky blue and translucent as the inside of a robin’s egg. On we marched, oblivious to the noises of men and the distractions of nature.

The doors of Your cedar cathedral were closed. Not surprisingly, since no ordained priest had been sent out to the parish after the departure of Rev. Reynard. I suspected the portal would be locked as well, but stretched out my hand anyway and gave the doors a good rattle just to make my point. Then I turned on my bewildered flock with beseeching eyes and exclaimed: “Locked!”

Now, Lord, I must confess I executed this gesture with an intended theatrical flair. I fully expected at least the hint of a smirk on one or two of the faces in my audience. So imagine my astonishment when I discovered them all downcast, with what appeared to be genuine expressions of remorse on their bowed faces. Not one of them dared meet my gaze – not even Margaret Hewitt. Of course You don’t have to imagine this scene, Lord. You knew perfectly well how they would respond before I uttered my imprecation. Indeed it was You who added the hint of thunder to my voice and the glint of lightening in my eye.

Nor do you have to imagine the jolt of pride that shot through me when I observed the effect of my rebuke upon them. You know I brimmed with righteous indignation, which I would later repent. It was Your Word, not mine, that stunned them, and I sinned against You God, by imagining myself as the author of their confusion. Forgive me.

“Does anyone present have the key to these doors?” I demanded.

Mr. Hewitt fumbled about in his pocket and produced a jangling ring of keys – among them, I suppose, one to the vault of Mammon, and another to Your house of prayer. He jiggled it into the lock, twisted the bolt open, then edged aside, leaving to me the honour of stepping over the threshold.

By now I had quelled my inflated sense of dignity, which threatened to burst my skin it had expanded to such a degree. Keep me from anger, Lord, and overweening pride that parades as righteousness. Remind me always of Christ’s patient strength and willing sacrifice, for I do not have the right to tip over tables in Your temple. I cannot look any man in the eye and say “You, Sir, are a sinner and I condemn you”, because I am a sinner too, and the lowliest sinner of all, beings as I have been blessed with the means and the time to reflect upon Your Truth.

We entered Your sanctuary Lord, perforce in single file, for the gateway was narrow. What sublime calm I discovered there! The air seemed to me like a suspended breath, charged with the power of divine meditation. Right away I felt at home, and at peace, and in communion with all that lay under and above the roof of your tabernacle. The floorboards creaked as I made my way up the aisle to the foot of your alter. Behind me I heard the shuffle of my new flock, settling uncertainly into the pews. But these sounds did not disturb in the least Your profound tranquility My God. They passed through You like light without any reflective object to bar its way. And I knew in that moment for the first time – knew it in my heart – that what St. Augustine says about all  of you being fully existent in every quantum of Your universe is indescribably true, Lord.

I prostrated myself on the floorboards of that magnificent church and gave thanks for the life you have given me and the task you have set me.

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