Saturday, March 26, 2016


As we approached  St. Thomas Church, I said to Joe, “Love among the ruins.”  St. Thomas has worshiped in a parish house for decades since the church was destroyed by arson.  Only remnants of the old east wall stand at the end of what is now (for awhile longer) a park.  Some of my best moments have been among ruins.  Glastonbury Abbey, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Coventry Cathedral, Qumran, the Parthenon, the old Benedictine monastery at Canterbury:  all are places where I have experienced —what?  A sense of Presence, perhaps.  Not always the same, yet never very different.   Something slightly eerie, an uncanny quiet, the gentle intrusion of a force I knew but could not name, a head-shaking moment when I second-guessed whatever it was and chalked it off to my imaginings.

St. Thomas’ gates unbarred, we entered.  He was on his way somewhere else,  I was early for a Maundy Thursday Liturgy.  Voices floated down the stairs from where choir and others were rehearsing. I did not need to eavesdrop on that.  I went outside among the ruins and chose a bench to wait out the half hour before things started.

A man and a woman walking dogs passed by and paid me no attention.  Another dog walker passing through paid me less. Then a friend crossed the park, one whom I had not seen for awhile. Him I barely recognized, but called his name as he came close by.   He lifted up a bowed head, did a double-take, said my name, “Oh it is you!  What are you doing here?”  I told him I had come to get my feet washed and maybe to wash his, it being Maundy Thursday.  He laughed.  We chatted for a moment.  Then he made his way out of the ruins and up towards the chatting rehearsers. 

I diddled with my phone, observed the sky begin to darken into rose and orange, studied the remnants of the old high altar, tried to imagine what St. Thomas had been like before the blaze took it down, wondered what songs back in the thirties they’d have sung in that space on Maundy Thursday, searched my mind for the words of a hymn I do not much like, rose and walked past someone munching on a saved lunch. 

It was the day of the Maundy—the new commandment.  “A new commandment I give you, to love one another as I have loved you.”  I mounted the steps to the sanctuary, set with a table reminiscent of a supper, basins and towels visible for the foot washing to come.  The whole evening was one that I somehow felt would wash over me, leaving little trace of itself.  (Time will tell.)  A good homily, a moment or two having someone kneeling down and touching my feet, then I kneeling and touching someone else’s, the long chanting of “Deus, Deus Meus” and its forlorn cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” were somewhat predictable.  They are the stuff of Maundy Thursday.  But I think what will last for awhile in my mind more strongly is the bit of time I spent among the ruins, watching dogs sniff and piss, in late March warmth, as daylight slipped into darkness.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Saturday, March 05, 2016


            One Saturday morning when I was eleven, I went to see Mr. Hedgepath, my pastor at Conway Methodist Church.  It was my very first time to seek out a pastor for a personal conversation. 

            In the sixth grade, I was just about to come into puberty.  My voice had not changed.  I had little body hair.  I was intelligent but rather socially odd—at least compared with my peers.  I desperately wanted to be popular, but somehow felt all the surefire ways of doing so as a boy were blocked to me.  I was not interested in nor good at sports.  I had few close male friends.  The girls that I wanted to like me seemed always to be drawn to more boyish boys. 

            I remember asking Mr. Hedgepath if it were OK for me not to play sports.  I obviously wanted some assurance that I was in fact all right.  I was beginning to suspect that I was “different.”  In fact I knew I was.  Almost none of my peers, girls or boys, was nearly so enchanted as was I with churchy things.  I liked a raft of things that few other kids, boys especially, seemed to care at all about—house cleaning, flower arranging, gardening (I grew zinnias from seeds), genealogy, local history, visiting older people.  I doubt that I unpacked very much of that for the pastor.  I might have had a few other issues—but I can only remember the question I put to him about playing football and baseball, they being clearly the focus of my visit.

            Mr. Hedgepath, said, “Frank, I think football and baseball are fine—I played them both, but I don’t think you have to.” He proceeded to look for a book he wanted to lend or give me.  He never could lay his hand on it, but in the process of looking, he pulled out a thin little volume called God’s Perfect Way for You, by Hazel Pickett.   He gave it to me, suggesting that I might find it helpful.  I think I never opened it.  I could never get past the title.  I thought, as I grew older and occasionally cast my eye on the fading blue cover, that it was likely a book that would reveal to me that God had a “perfect” way for me that somehow I would find it terribly difficult to live up to. 

            I held on to the book for one reason.  Mr. Hedgepath had given it to me.  In all the downsizings through the years, I have never even seriously thought of giving or throwing it away.  Nor have I had any intention of reading it.  Apparently I never read the subtitle: “A Manual of the different Ways we may come to know God as a Living Presence within us, and thereby reach complete fulfillment and complete joy.”  Words were unimportant, but the gift, my only token of a real childhood model and mentor, was precious. 

            In my latest thinning out of books, I picked up Mrs. Pickett’s book.  I opened it and began reading.  Much to my surprise, it turns out to be something of a practical mystagogy.  It is not the kind of book I would likely write or even buy.  But what impresses me is how much I understand of it today and how little of it I would have understood sixty years ago.  I could not have understood much more than the bare words on the page.  I would have missed the message entirely. 

            Hazel Pickett was clearly a mystic, in the sense that she had a direct experience of God.  Like all mystics, she transcends binary thinking and understands the fundamental Unity of all things and persons with God.  Her grasp of the “perfect way” is a contemplative, peaceful, joyous ride with the Almighty. 

            It has taken me six decades to arrive at the point where I am able to read appreciatively the book Mr. Hedgepath pulled off his library shelf.  Maybe unconsciously I saved it until the kairos moment—when the time was fulfilled and I was ready.

© Frank Gasque Dunn