Years ago, Sister asked me to help with church decorating. I said sure, because I was a joiner, easily persuaded, still young, and I liked to spend time at church. Helping with church decorating meant going to some meetings and a beautiful collaboration around the altar one evening in November, where a group of very strong personalities, all women, designed a set of banners for Advent and Christmas. I made them. We still use them, what, 9 years later?
The decision was made that there would be a new altar cloth, one purple for Advent and one this gold end of white for Christmas. I was asked to hem them as well. I liked--still like--the Advent version. But the Christmas one felt cheap and thin and too gauzy and flimsy. It was also not very well put together. People claimed to like it but my heart wasn't in it.
Things were set up for Christmas. It was all so magnificent. I will say this: everything was beautiful and fit together in a lovely awesome way, even if my altar cloth just didn't seem quite right.
I'm not sure of the details any longer. All I know is that there was a parishioner, Evelyn, who had, until that year, been in charge of the decorating and I realized sometime in the process that she had either bowed out or been left out of the decision making process.
Sometimes I have these moments when I come to the edge of awareness of my situation. Sort of meta. And I came to one of those on Christmas Eve. The altar was bare when I walked in early--just to make sure all was well. There were folks getting ready to dress the altar as part of midnight mass. And there was another altar cloth waiting to be used, in the back, draped over a pew.
I don't recall anymore how it all came about. I just know that it was replaced, with mine, and Evelyn was very angry.
It was my altar cloth that was causing the strife.
And I didn't even care about my altar cloth. I wasn't especially proud of it and I liked the other one, frankly. And I could tell she really, really, wanted to use the one she'd always used. I felt uneasy.
I don't like feeling uneasy.
I had to make it better or at least make it clear that I was trying to make it better. I needed to get brave.
I found Evelyn in the sacristy, actually in the little tunnel between the sacristies in the back of church. I had the other altar cloth in my hands. And as she looked at me the anger and hurt in her eyes just soaked in and overwhelmed me and I started to cry.
"I don't care what altar cloth we use," I told her, holding the other one out to her. "Use this one."
She shook her head. "No, it's fine."
But it wasn't fine. But I nodded anyway and withdrew my arm.
"I know this is now," I tried to explain, waving my other hand in the air. "But some day Sister will be gone and lots of other people will be gone and it'll be me and you and I can't have this driving a wedge between us."
She hugged me. "I know it's not you," she summed up.
I went back and sat in the congregation. Did a little more crying. Pulled myself together.
It was the first time I'd done something like that, decided I didn't have a dog in a fight and gave another person that knowledge. Let my guard down purposefully. Became vulnerable. And that was good. And that was hard. And I prayed that we'd get along and it wouldn't become some weird rift. And I wondered about the interconnectedness of us all.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
As I sat at the light in Carondelet Park this evening, waiting to take my middle daughter to a mixer down at my older daughter's high school, I thought about time passing and that moment behind the wall in the sacristy whispered to me.
Sister is gone.
And even though I thought I saw the future a certain way, Evelyn is gone.
And so are so many others.
My heart ached for them, wherever they are.
New people come to church. New relationships are formed. There's a turning of seasons and pastors and friendships and conflicts. Communities are always in flux. There is new energy and new fun and our brains love novelty. It's weird to be the stability now.
We still have those altar cloths, but neither is used very often, in favor of two handmade linen beauties made by another member of the parish.
I stick to banners now.