Grounds for Worship
THE WOODEN BOX: CHAMBERS THAT BREATHE
by Jerry Murley
Version Options: Tall & Uncut | Theatrical (Sanitized)
WARNING: The plot, meaning and ending are the same.
When I transition to the great beyond, I want to be housed for my journey in a simple pine box. Laws permitting, I don't want to be sealed in a concrete vault, so as to better permit my vessel to transmit the vibrations of earth.
To me, worship is an interactive thanks and contemplation of the big forces and the big questions. I say interactive, because I think the activities assume a dialogue of sorts, even if only between the confident self and the doubtful self. Worship does not take a group or guidance. It does not need elaborate ceremony or finery. It can be performed in many ways.
When I think of a place of worship, nothing appeals to me more than an old simple, white wooden church or schoolhouse, such as were prevalent in the South when we might have thought we were high and mighty but we didn't have the wherewithal to build something to match our egos.
Having grown up around building all my life, a wooden structure and the smell of freshly cut wood hold a special attraction. Once I wielded hammer and nail, knew how a building is built, and lifted my first framed wall, there was no stopping the adoration. Acoustics play a large part in my fondness: I think of the sound of footsteps. The play of light is another, thinking as I do now of sunlight gliding over a long expanse of wooden flooring and the dance of shadow and light on white wood siding on a bright summer afternoon.
Now, I have visited wonderful structures that I felt were sacred. And by that, I mean they were dark, sturdy enclosures that hushed my disquiet and sometimes brought a rush of admiration as well. And I don't mean just the great cathedrals. I am thinking more of May – of the Friday evening organ recital at San Miniato in Florence and the golden mosaic and timelessness of the church on the square in Trastevere in Rome. Such experiences go on and on, like the little church I passed on one Saturday afternoon while hiking to Fiesole, where a monk beckoned me into the cool dark to see a treasured fresco.
The places with the strongest attachment, though, are places where I did and do worship: There is the little wooden church that once stood on the northeast corner of White Station and Poplar in Memphis that was shoved aside for a mausoleum, which itself was torn down after 40 years for a drug store. There was the outdoor revival tent at Camp Zion in Mississippi, where my cousins and I, using our feet, played with the wood shavings thick on the ground – like fiddling with pray beads with one's toes – waiting impatiently for the big table of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn and cobbler to follow. My cousins swear that the burly minister once performed a nighttime treat called the red flames of hell, swinging a bare red light bulb from an extension cord to simulate the dreadful specter of damnation.
Then there is the church in the mountains in the Smokies, where my parents dropped me, my sister and my older cousin on Sunday morning while we were on a week-long camping trip. My cousin, though a year into high school, wanted to maintain his perfect church attendance record. So we were cast among an unusual gathering of full-throated gospel singing and amens in a sea of white shirts. It is mighty comforting when one is in such a place and situation to hear the walls creak, to catch the sunlight piercing in slivers through the clapboard siding, and see that indeed there is sunlit space between one's feet and the bare dirt below.
The well-proportioned wooden church reaches me through movies about hard times where the preacher is close enough to grab you and cast you straight into hell or to hold you back from the brink. And the sound of singing in such a hall runs a close second to the glory of a cappella voice or chamber music in a mortared hall. I think of that meeting hall in Shakertown in Kentucky. The Shakers did not disappear because of reproductive extinction, I think they were snatched up to the ether for possessing both superior taste and craftsmanship, to say nothing of discipline, in such degrees as to defy the mere human and earn frozen-in-time status.
A simple wooden structure is a simple admission of just how vulnerable we are. Why a late-night tornado can rip by and pull it, you, and the nearby oak right out of the ground and throw you into the tree line by the river.
I respect stone and its durability. I admire the craft and ingenuity required to build such structures well. But the cavernous hall is not for me in terms of worship. For I want not only to touch my walls but to smell them, to hear them, and to feel them with my eyes shut.
(I resume and close on that vision of my final chapel on earth: I don't want any fawning purveyor of grief and solace presiding in a funeral factory. Give me a barn, a wagon, a hillside view, or mini-revival at grave side. Give me raw words from people I know and who knew me.)
For these are the grounds for worship – the beauty that is and could be nevermore.