2011 – Bethany Clarke – Sanctuary

High School Prose Winner from the 2011 issue

Bethany Clarke

Swinging around lamp posts in the parking lot laughing, we sisters meandered towards the granite church in downtown Laconia, a New Hampshire city with a sliding economy. I remember my mom teaching me the proper etiquette for shaking hands after slipping through the solid oak doors twice the size of any normal person.“Never a floppy fish,” she would chide me. Once we entered through those doors, habits changed and you had to use “inside voices.” I remember counting and recounting the number of light bulbs dimly illuminating the sanctuary while the minister passed on wisdom to those older and wiser than I. I remember not just sitting in the pews, but squirming, wriggling, scaling, and hiding under them after Sunday’s more distinguished attendees had flowed downstairs for coffee hour. I remember discreetly scribbling “JUST DO IT!” in permanent black marker in a Bible in the front pew.

These flickering memories have been dismissed and coveted, forgotten and then rediscovered again, but my love of that comfortable old church remains. Though toted by my parents to Sunday services ever since I was born, this ardor is not fueled by religious zeal. I love churches simply because they abound with people who are trying to do the right thing. Even with conflicting theological beliefs and styles of worship, religious people share one common thread. Each individual holds within them the power to transform themselves and the world in the quest for the divine. On a search for the unknown, individuals seek places of silence in a universe that is often hectic and noisy. Welcoming me, the formidable doors of any place of worship signal that the world inside is different—softer. Wooden beams form a vessel filled with solace and hope. Lounging on the pews in languid quiet, encompassed by the dusty light-stained air, there is an ethereal quality that makes me stop for a moment and marvel.

Searching hopelessly for a Wednesday afternoon meditating session at the St. Paul’s Advanced Studies Program, I made a discovery. In the first week of the intensive five-week program I was floating, floating in a sea of the unknown. Strangers lived with me, ate with me, and learned with me. Dirt paths through woodland and fields led to beautiful, but unwanted, destinations. The crushing amount of homework from my “Changing the World” class seemed insurmountable. I found myself pining for the day when the lush campus and my cramped dorm room would feel like home. This mist of uncertainty clouded my vision until I was brought out of my worries by the chime of a bell.

The heaven-reaching bell tower and gothic architecture of the cathedral dwarfed the miniature, modest chapel beside it. Something drew me to the less bold, more mysterious chapel. I tugged on the antiquated door knob, expecting it to be locked against intruders, but it gave way, opening on oiled hinges. The door was heavy, providing thick, defining insulation between me and the outside world. Delight crept in and a smile unfurled as I peered around the corner to confirm it was just me and the church, truly alone. The chocolaty brown oak of the walls and ceiling were carved with simple floral patterns, dimly shadowed by afternoon light. Stained glass windows allowed lemon, orange, and blueberry tinted sunlight to splay playfully up and down my arms and face. I stood tall at the church’s heart and took in a deep breath of that lovely musty church air emanating from the dusty bibles and creaking floorboards. It was heavy, almost repugnant, accented with overtones of candle wax and traces of communion grape juice.

Echoes of home reverberated infinitesimally in the sanctuary with the same dark and arching wooden ceilings as the church of my childhood. The hymnals and Bibles remained bound in faded red with flimsy, nearly transparent pages. The lectern still stood stubborn and erect above the general semblance of uncomfortable pews below. Steadfast, the church remained a sacred space where I could remove myself from the gushing stream of life to recollect and reorient myself. Without that time to look within, I would have continued on in that crazy state of confusion and urgency that accompanies a new beginning. Instead, I was equipped to reenter the exhilarating flow with rejuvenated confidence, determination, and peace. “100 pages of reading…it’s not impossible!” I thought to myself. Retracing my footsteps, I pushed open the protective oak doors to move forward with the day, ready to change the world.

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