This is the next installment of the unpublished manuscript, Landscape with Figures, by my grandmother, Beatrice Allen Page:
“When I set out as usual for a walk this morning, I had no particular destination in mind. It just happened that I was passing the church over by the cove as people were arriving for the service, and on an impulse I went in too.
It is a typical old New England church, painted white and built with a lovely simplicity of line. On the inside there is a center aisle flanked by two sections of semi-circular pews, all of which had little doors a the ends which latched securely with a decisive click. I thought for a moment I’d actually been locked in just in case I changed my mind. As a matter of fact, my presence wasn’t needed that badly – the place was almost full. Most of the people I’ve met this summer attend one of the churches over in town if they attend any. However, this Stoneleigh church draws people from several communities in the area, most them local residents, I surmise, but with a fairly good percentage of summer people mixed in.
The cornerstone of the congregation seemed to be a row of old ladies with fine, strong features who sat stiff and erect in the front left pew. From where I saw on the opposite side, some rows back, I had an oblique view of their profiles. They looked as if thtey might all be Emerson’s sisters petrified by time.
I was surprised when the minister entered; I hadn’t expected him to be so young. I decided he must be fresh out of seminary and that this was his first incumbency or whatever it’s called.
All through the hymns and preliminaries to the sermon I felt self-conscious and vaguely guilty, as if I were an imposter. It is a long time since I’ve been in church except for a wedding or a funeral. My feeling of awkwardness was increased when I suddenly realized I had no money with me. When the offering was taken up, however, my interest in the way it was done made me forget my embarrassment. Instead of passing a plate, the ushers carefully thrust into each pew a pole from which was suspended a mulberry-colored velvet pouch that delicately muffled the clink of coins.
When the minister began his sermon, I tried to concentrate on what he was saying but most of the time I was thinking about him instead. He was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, very personable young man with good diction, and in spite of his youth his delivery was confident without being cocksure. I liked him, even though I didn’t take in much of what he was saying.
But what was he like when he was not in the pulpit, I wondered? Was he a person I could talk with comfortable or would there be too great a gap between our viewpoints? What made him enter the ministry? Did he grow up with a strong religious faith or was it something he had to struggle to acquire or was it something hat struck him our of the blue? Was he primarily interested in saving souls or in making the church relevant to the world we live in? Had he found a treasure forever beyond my reach?
If I had listened carefully to what he was saying, I might have learned the answers to some of my questions, but my mind and gaze wandered from him to the people around me. What were they really thinking about, what did they feel, what did they really believe? Was that ruddy, stocky, well-dressed man, for instance, really absorbed in the minister’s words or barely holding back his impatience to go fishing on this lovely day? And that slightly pained-looking woman in the flowered print dress – was she having trouble understanding the sermon or did her shoes hurt her?
When the service was over, I tried to sidle out inconspicuously but several strangers came up and greeted me cordially and then my friends, the Mitchells, appeared, looking as surprised to see me there as I was to see them. They offered me a ride home which I declined, but I chatted with them for a few minutes as we walked out together. It seems they’ve been attending that church in the summer ever since they started coming to Stoneleigh nine years ago.
As I was turning to go, Frank asked, ‘Why haven’t we seen you here before?’ I couldn’t decide whether it was an honest questions or whether he was teasing me.
‘It’s a good question,’ I laughed, and went on my way thinking that was the end of it.
But this evening the question has come back. A little while ago I heard the chapel bell over in the village ringing for vesper service. As always, it seemed to me to have a lonely sound and put me in a slightly melancholy mood.
I visualized a little flock of the faithful straggling along the road – the ones who had no time for churchgoing in the morning, such as the domestics who work for the summer people, or the very pious and forlorn who felt a need to attend church both morning and evening. The image depressed me. I thought it was because I felt sorry for them.
Then without my intention or volition the image changed. I was no longer the creator of it, I was a passive spectator. Instead of a scattering of people along the road, I saw thousands and thousands of people stretching way back into the distance, far beyond eye range – a distance in time as well as space – all pressing forward together toward the chapel. The phrase ‘strnagers and pilgrims on the earth’ went through my mind, and to my utter astonishment I realized it was for myself I felt sorry. I felt a pang of envy and of loneliness. I wanted to belong to that procession.
It was then that Frank’s question came back to me and I asked myself; if instead of evading the question, I had answered it honestly, what would I have said?
I suppose my answer would have gone like this: ‘You don’t see me in church because I’m not sure I even believe in God. I’m one of those who are ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot.’ I’l like to believe in God but I can’t.’
And then if he had asked me why I couldn’t, I suppose I’d have brought up the old argument about all the undeserved suffering in the world not jibing with a lovely and omnipotent Deity, along with all the other timeworn intellectual objections to which no one, so far as I know, has ever found or received an explanation any more specific or satisfactory than the one Job got.
That would have been my answer to Frank. But would it have really been an honest answer? A vague uneasiness tells me it would not. But then what is the answer?”