This essay by Porter Taylor concludes our five-part series, “Encounters with God.” These essays were written by several participants in the summer 2015 writing workshop, Apart & Yet A Part. Read previous essays by M. Sophia Newman, Jamie Howison, Kurt Armstrong, and Paige Eve Chant.
I was sitting on a bench outside of a classroom at Emory University’s Institute of Liberal Arts in 1980, running my finger down the book page. I had ten minutes to read a chapter in The Raw and the Cooked, but it was a losing battle.
“Hey, Porter. It looks like that church you gave up on may have some life in it after all.”
“Joan. You mean the Frozen Chosen are thawing out?”
Joan Leonard and I were both working on our doctorates in Literature and Theology at Emory. She was a Catholic nun, but more the Sally Fields kind, not the kind who smacked kids’ hands with rulers. Instead of trying to lead me to Rome, she was coaxing me back into the big tent of the church.
At Emory I could study God without dealing with the church. I took courses in mysticism and religious poets, all the time staying within the safe confines of the academy. Years earlier, when I left home for college, I also left the church. I liked having my Sunday mornings for NPR and the New York Times. I enjoyed unstructured time for culture and news, however, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t feel grounded.
“So,” I asked Joan, “Let’s hear the good news about Episcopalians.”
She sat beside me wearing her blue skirt and matching jacket. I wasn’t sure if it was an official nun’s uniform. “They’re starting a homeless shelter up at St. Bart’s. You know, the Episcopal Church up the street. It will be the only family shelter in this part of the city.”
She nudged my arm with hers. “Why don’t you check it out?”
Two weeks later, I was a volunteer on Thursday nights at St. Bart’s. It wasn’t a hard sell. My wife, Jo, and I didn’t have kids. She was glad to have me out one night a week so she could work uninterrupted in her art studio. Meanwhile, I was glad to go because I felt too locked into my head. I liked graduate school, but I was getting lopsided with so much abstraction. I told myself the volunteering was to help poor people, but I knew the deeper agenda was a hole in me.
The parish hall of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church was octagonal, a result of experimental 60’s-style architecture. Walking in right on time at 5:30, I was greeted by the only person I knew from the church, Martha Evans. She had an Emory connection and reminded me of one of the godmothers in the Cinderella cartoon: round, happy, fun. “Hey, Porter,” she said, “Welcome to the best ministry in Atlanta.”
St. Bart’s had room for eight families—one per classroom. There were two showers, plus a washer and dryer. Families could stay for up to two weeks, so the turnover was relatively low.
My job was to sign people in at the 6:00 p.m. arrival time. It didn’t sound hard. Martha told me most of the families were returning. I sat at a small wooden desk and felt like a librarian.
Early November in Atlanta is unpredictable weather, and the night was cold, but not below freezing. Nonetheless, the first family wore so many layers they looked like Eskimos. The mother’s face was red and raw. She held a baby with her left arm and the hand of a small boy in her right. He had pulled the drawstring of his red Georgia sweatshirt tight around his face.
“You must be Ms. Morris,” I said—having been prompted by Martha. “You already know you belong in room number three, right?”
“We know where we belong and we know the drill.” She wasn’t hostile, just tired.
The other families were much the same. Everyone got fed; clothes got washed; a new family got settled.
The volunteers divided up the hours we’d stay awake that night: two on shift from ten p.m. to two a.m.; two from two a.m. to six. Everyone, was up at six—volunteers and families—for breakfast and church and out by eight.
Martha and I took the two to six shift, sleeping for a while before our fellow volunteers woke us for the shift change. I was surprised I slept so hard. My head was fuzzy for the first part of our four hour early morning shift. We read; we whispered; we stared into space out of sheer fatigue.
At one point, Martha whispered, “Come with me to the Eucharist at 7:00 in the morning. It’s wonderful.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I told her.
“Don’t worry. It’s short and sweet.”
I didn’t so much choose to accept Martha’s offer; rather, I was swept into worship with the crowd, which included most of the families. They weren’t eager to get back out on the street.
St. Bart’s sanctuary was another 60’s experiment in church architecture. It was a failure. There was no there there. The space was dark except for the light that enveloped the altar. The altar itself stood on a circular platform circumscribed by a black rail. All of us gathered, awkwardly, around the rail. The priest, a short, bearded man in a white vestment and a purple stole, walked in and stood behind the altar. I stood just outside the light as though I were in a customs line unready to go through to a new land.
I recognized the words, and I knew the responses. But they were a language from another time, and I couldn’t say them. While those around me said the Creed, I stared at the floor. I felt as though I were in a time warp. Virgin Birth. Descended to the dead. “This is 1980,” I thought, “not the Middle Ages.” The priest talked about Jesus not giving up on anyone, but the words sounded canned. “That’s a hard sell for these folks,” I thought. “Easy for you to say when you’ve got a car and home.” (I conveniently ignored that I had a car and a home too.)
Then the priest came around with round wafers, each with a cross molded in the middle. The woman beside me whispered to her five-year-old son, “Put your stuff down and hold out your hands together.” He did, and, remembering the Eucharists of my childhood, I did too.
The priest put the wafer in my hands and said, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” I put the wafer in my mouth. The last time I’d taken communion, the wafers had melted on my tongue. These were different. They had to be chewed. Tears came to my eyes. I took a breath. I couldn’t remember weeping since I saw the movie Lassie.
I wept. No noise, just wetness dripping down my face. I wiped my face with my sleeve, but the tears didn’t stop. I took a step back into the dark. I had no idea what was happening to me.
When Martha came to me with the chalice of wine, I reached for it with my right hand to guide it to my mouth—as I had been properly taught as a child—but my hand was shaking so badly that I had to let go.
She guided it to my lips and said, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
Was it? Is this what this was about? Heaven and salvation? Even with all my graduate classes in religion, I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know anything really except the physical experience itself. My heart was beating faster; I was crying and I felt somehow animated, as if a current ran through me.
When the service was over, I bolted for the door, but the guests were milling around and blocking the exit—kids getting their coats, parents finding their bus tokens, everydayness.
Martha grabbed my arm, “See you next week, okay?”
I was back in control, but not up for explanations. “Okay.” And I left.
The next week I ate the wafer and drank the wine and wept. And the next week and the next.
I didn’t want to talk to the priest. I knew it would go downhill because the words didn’t make sense. I dealt with words every day in graduate school, but this was too big and too far beyond the safety of academia and its careful, footnoted analysis. My worlds were divided—a dissertation about poems describing mystical experiences on the one hand, and wafers that had to be chewed on the other. I couldn’t bridge the gap.
So I avoided conversation. At the end of each church service I walked as quickly as I could into the crisp Atlanta morning.
But I went back again and again. I couldn’t make sense of anything, but I had found a hunger that only that little wafer could feed.
Maybe it was nostalgia. Maybe it was a way to get back to some idealized childhood I wanted but never lived. But maybe I was tired of reading about people connected to God while I felt empty inside.
After three weeks, Jo said, “So. Is this a church thing or a shelter thing? Are you easing in the back door?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said, “but I’m going back this Friday.”
The first time I went to a Sunday service, the other priest, Jack Murray, preached. I didn’t like his voice. It was reedy. His sermon was on Christianity as the only way to salvation. I shed no tears that day. I left the church during the last hymn.
When I got home, I wrote him a three-page, single-spaced letter. I quoted Martin Buber and The Cloud of Unknowing and insisted that the world was too large for Christians to pretend we had a monopoly on the sacred. I mentioned Thomas Merton’s learning from the Buddhists and ended with, “The God that can be put in a box isn’t God.”
The next Thursday, Woody, the priest from that first communion, caught up with me after the service. He patted my shoulder as if we were longtime friends. He cocked his head and said with a half laugh, “Jack says you teed off on him. Is that right?”
I was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see me blush. “Well, we had a difference of opinion.”
“Yep,” he said, “sounds like the Episcopal Church to me.”
In the decades that have followed, I have loved the church and been disheartened by it. At times the Episcopal Church has disappointed me—its slowness about full inclusion of gay and lesbian members; its cumbersome and antiquated governance system; its lingering country club attitude—but none of my disappointments have lessened the gladness in my heart when I eat the bread and drink the wine. These acts are too tactile and primal for my mind to manipulate them. It isn’t about interpretation but eating and drinking. Maybe that eating and drinking took me back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem; maybe it was a reminder of all the times I had knelt to be fed communion before; maybe it just triggered a recognition of my deep hunger to feel connected. Maybe it is all of these. I’ve never sorted it out.
The philosopher Ken Wilbur says there are two functions for all religions. The first is “translation.” Christianity, like all religions, explains how we got here, how we are supposed to act, and where we are going. This explanatory function kept me away from church for so long and instead drew me into the faith’s academic orbit, because I wanted to argue with so many of the explanations.
But the second is “transformation.” This is where we get in the elevator on the top floor of the ivory tower and go down until we find ourselves on the ground level of mystery and wonder. We stop knowing about God and just for a moment are held by God. We weep, and we are transformed.
In the years since Emory, I seldom cry when I eat the bread and drink the cup in church. But for me they are still the doorway into the mystery.