The Coincidental Congregant Or How I prayed the Evening Office Totally by Accident and Loved It.

St. Joseph Church Durham Church CrowdGarden Cool Garden Trail HIGH STRUNG School of Music Durham

My wife, Jana, and I find ourselves making trips to Durham, North Carolina and to the Duke University Campus every so often. When we go we religiously visit Duke Chapel, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a favourite Mexican restaurant and the Mad Hatter, a sort of coffee shop with a name suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s classic. We have recently added another element to the round and that is Saint Joseph’s Episcopal Church.  We added it because we have always been curious about this small quaint bastion of Anglicanism amid a sea of Methodism and because of stories told to us by a priest friend concerning her service there as an intern while attending Duke Divinity.  Also, and this is truly important, St. Joe’s lot abuts the building housing Zola’s one of Jana’s favorite gift shops.

Last Thursday, June 9th was another Duke visitation day.  We concluded our respective business and agreed that we would have lunch and then walk the Garden,  After we had eaten a late lunch we set out for the Gardens but we found the temperature to be too hot and feared that a walk might produce a reaction akin to heat stroke.   The cell phone said it was “92 but felt like 96” and to me it felt like 100.  The heat index must have been a result of the humidity.  So Jana decided she wanted to go by Zola’s for a while and give the heat a chance to dissipate.  As Jana was exiting the car to head for Zola’s I decided that this would be a good time to visit St. Joe’s as I had never seen the inside of the Church and I tend to be a challenged shopper as most men of my generation tend to be unless power tools are involved, or in my case, books.  So I ambled around the fence barriers separating the properties and walked up the St. Joe’s drive.  As I progressed, I passed person after person who very obviously were economically challenged.  Each greeted me warmly and with a smile.  As I approached the Church, I turned and ask a nearby man if the Church was open.  “They are just opening it,” he told me.  I instinctively glanced at my watch:  5:25 p.m.  Ah, time for Evening Prayer, what a coincidence.  Up until this moment I had had not paid attention to the time.  I just felt drawn to the church for some reason. As I rounded the corner and approached the West door (the West door liturgically speaking is that one opposite the altar and is usually the front door)  a man was unlocking it.  Pleasantries and greetings were exchanged as I introduced myself and told them I was a parishioner at Trinity Cathedral Parish in Columbia.  I also mentioned my priest friend’s name and everyone remembered her.  So in we went and we prayerfully offered up the evening office “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.  Jana, upon finishing her shopping, joined us sometime after the psalms. After the conclusion of the office, we talked and chatted some more and then bid our hosts a fond farewell.  Or hosts also helped me figure out the location of another future part of the round that being the Peter Maurin Catholic Worker House operated by the Community of the Franciscan Way which is a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.  Its purpose is “to seek a life of prayer, study, simplicity, and fellowship with the poor.” The Community follows the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement,  begun in 1933 by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, and offers food and shelter to the poor.

After prayer,  Jana and I walked back down the St. Joe’s drive  toward the lot on which Zola’s sits.  As we walked we passed a large group of people, men and women, sitting by the side of the drive.  We stopped and chatted.  They found it interesting that we were from Columbia and had a few remarks concerning the confederate flag and the tragedy at Mother Emanuel.  We all agreed the weather was much too hot.  And, they kindly showed us a short cut through a break in the fence so we could walk directly back into the Zola’s lot.

We did visit the gardens and as happens each time we visit we find a section we have never visited before.  This time we found a section reminiscent of a nature trail in a national park rather than a path in a landscaped garden.  We ended the day with the obligatory visit to the Mad Hatter, or the Hatter, as we like to call it, for a breve and cookies. Then it was on the road again and our matriculation through the wilds of North Carolina, the metropolitan snares of Charlotte and Rock Hill, and then back to the swamp and the famously hot – Columbia, South Carolina.

It is interesting to note a contrast here.  We traveled some two hundred miles in very nice automobile and had meetings in very nice modern office buildings.  We then ate in a very nice restaurant, visited a comfortable Church with convivial friends and walked in a very well maintained landscaped garden containing beautiful views of all kinds of wonderful plant life.  The people we visited at the Church who were economically challenged  lead a very different life.  This would be a life that my wife and I would shudder at and try to refuse to be a part of even if our economics forced us into it.  Yet, our friends at the Church have no choice.  So as I realized some weeks ago anytime I can render some form of assistance whether it is providing money, or simply taking the time to converse  person to person, I do it.  I do it not because I am such a good fellow but because I am called to do it and it is the right thing to do.

We have just removed the confederate flag from our statehouse grounds here in Columbia.  In doing so we have removed a piece of cloth which has come to be a symbol for slavery and discrimination. That removal has become our cause célèbre accompanied by singing and dancing in the streets literally. But our work is not finished. Now we come to the really hard part.  That is the work of doing the boring and tedious labor of building a very just and Christ-like society which truly respects the dignity of all people.  Once again, Uncle Screwtape provides an instructive instruction in this area in Letter II of the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis he advised his protege wormwood as follows:

  Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His “free” lovers and servants—”sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to “do it on their own”. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt. (The enemy referred to here is God as Screwtape and Wormwood are in the service of “Our Father Below – who is variously called Satan, Devil, whatever)

          So time to roll up sleeves and buckle down and do the hard work of creation.  Creation is our calling.  To paraphrase a common commercial slogan “Creation is us”.  We do God’s work and we create which is a never-ending work which must always be done.  It always must be done no matter how inadequate to the task we either are, or we feel we are.  Despite hardship, age, infirmity etc. God expects us to “show up” for work every day without fail.  There is no leave, and even on vacation there is no vacation.  Day by day brick by brick we do God’s work until he remakes us and gives yet a different task. As one commentary on the book of the prophet Amos puts it  “what God demands of man (humanity) is expressed not only in terms of action, but also in terms of passion,” ( Herschel, The Prophets, New York, 1955).


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