My heart can’t resist them.
A couple years of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, circa 1970s, I realized that I wanted to live in a church.
I found a little white clapboard Baptist church near Panther Falls, Virginia. Abandoned, because the people lost faith in the midst of poverty. But it was still structurally solid and safely nestled inside a grove of poplar trees and scrub oak.
The steeple looked like the base of an old windmill. Above the door was a round stained glass window, with red and blue hues, that reminded me of Jupiter.
Inside, the pews were lined in rows of horizontal soldiers. A grid work of dark wood and red velvet seat cushions. The room was small but it felt spacious because of the ascending ceiling and the choir loft that touched the clouds when fog descended.
The sunlight that crept through the trees was misty by the time it met the colored windows lining the building’s side walls. The interior was a mixture of light and dark and every color of the rainbow in-between. It was peaceful and solemn.
I love churches when they are empty.
Those beautiful little handcrafted edifices without rituals, but with the accessories necessary to conduct one as décor.
A place to be still.
A place to call home.
I was too poor to buy that church and unable to convince the owners to rent it, but I still harbor a yearning to live in that Appalachian church-home.
I have thought lovingly of it for three+ decades. Every time I drive by a little white church of any denomination, my heart rejoices.
After I moved to the village of Estancia, New Mexico, several years back, I quickly discovered that around the corner from my tiny house was one of the sweetest white churches of all times.
Not acquainted with the religion, but I fell in love with the building. And when I learned that the back door was kept unlocked, on weekday afternoons after work, I’d slip in, sit on the red velvet cushion, and gaze through the painted glass windows. Noting that the southern exposures were singed – the edges of Jesus’ garments and the corners of the Last Supper’s tablecloth all charred and curling.
The wooden pews were arranged in arcs, with two aisles, like a huddle around the pulpit. Behind the lectern were tables draped in white fabrics that support forests of white taper candles.
I’d sit silently at different degrees of the arcs. Each radial angle reflective in a different color or shadow. I’d bow my head in some form of prism prayer.
Sitting in this church – alone – always washed me clean. Something about the simplicity of white that calms and renews.
I don’t yet understand my passion for little white wooden churches, but they invite my heart in.
They inspire confession.
When I feel filthy, a white church is my soap and washcloth.
And often I have some crazy sense of unclean.
I am always housecleaning; I am always heart-cleaning.
What am I obsessed with washing away?
Vacuuming some sin from the floor boards of my heart?
Scouring the toilet bowl of my soul?
Dusting the mantle of my mind?
Why is life – so messy – that I devote a lifetime to cleaning my space-of-being?
That I sit in empty churches to inhale purity?
That I focus my meditation upon the white fabrics draping from altars?
Sometimes I find my inner being crawling through the tunnels and webs of woven fibers, searching for the secret of the shroud.
I have never understood this passion for textiles either.
Maybe because fabric is tangible. Because I can see it constructed from its source – from the flax plants and silkworms and cotton pods.
I can track its progression. I can touch and smell its existence. I can also get lost in the fantasy of its lavish embroidery and festive beadwork.
I’m no fan of the new gospel churches that believe in bare warehouses as places of undistracted worship.
I need the distraction of beauty.
Especially the pageantry of ecclesiastical textiles.
I like sparse, but I need highlights of fabric embellishment. Lightly speaking: Holy dust clothes move me.
Sometimes I think that my deepest faith lies in empty churches and fabric. Somewhere in the honeycombs of stitchery, a wing of truth waits.
In a dust mote. In a spider’s dew-damp leg. In a tendril from a tightly-plied linen thread.
It’s absurdly simple. And mind-twistingly complex: sitting in empty white churches, contemplating sacred textiles, I find some sort of rogue religion.
And how happy was I, after remarrying, to find a tiny, tattered, white church about a mile away from my new home on the prairie.
A safe haven.
It offers peace of presence: Just knowing it’s sitting there . . . wind-beaten and bare . . . on a lonely dirt road.
A bit like someone’s stained and gritty coffee cup left behind.