One morning in early October when I was nineteen, my college women’s choir piled in buses out to a small town, and rehearsed all day in the basement of an old white steeple church: learning the lines, the rhythms, the entrances and exits, until our brains were saturated with music. Then at night, we wrapped ourselves in the duvets we’d pulled from our dorm beds and slept in the chapel, stretched out on the pews or in the aisles.
There was a party, of course, but I was skipping it, which is how I ended up in the chapel that night virtually alone. There was just enough light to read, but not enough to make out the details in the arched ceiling, or the faces of the statues in their alcoves. I was wrapped in my duvet up to my nose, my hat pulled over my ears, and I was reading Beowulf.
At the time, I hadn’t studied any Anglo-Saxon yet, so I must have been reading it in English when Grendel appeared, come over the moors mist-shrouded, bearing the wrath of God. I became so obsessed with it later that I learned parts of the original by heart, so that when I play the scene now, it’s the older words I hear, echoing in the rafters:
ða com of more under misthleoþum, Grendel gongan, godes yrre bær.
Chapels by day are perilous enough. By night, they are something out of story and song. The air feels shadowy and strange, and full of empty space. The veil between worlds is so thin you could slip a knife through the seam, if only you could find the right edge. If only you knew the right words.
I haven’t thought about that memory in a while, until a few weeks ago, when our ward’s seminary teacher moved to Colorado, and they asked me to take over the class for the rest of the year. This is a scripture study class for high schoolers that meets at six o’clock in the morning on school days, and people half-jokingly go around in dread of being asked to teach it. I thought it would probably be fun, but I wasn’t expecting this: walking to your car in the dark, the feeling of having extra eyes all over your skin, pricking through the back of your neck, the strange loudness of ordinary sounds. Birds, and the wind, and the car engine. Turning the key in the door of the church, pushing it open to the dark hallway, turning on the lights. Taking out your books, starting the music, saying nothing. Being the only one in the church. Prayer, half-formed. The way the students come in the door in ones and pairs, also saying nothing, half-asleep.
For a moment, on some days, there is this strange quality to the stillness. It seems tied to something about the darkness, or the music, or the hush of steps on carpet in the church alone, but it isn't any of these things really. It reminds me a little bit of Beowulf, and also of The Weight of Glory, and the way C.S. Lewis described joy:
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Then I turn off the music, and start the class, and human voices wake us. We read about Paul, and Priscilla and Aquila, and King Agrippa, and Jesus. By the time we leave the church, it will be full daylight. There are so many things to fill the day: jobs and chores, people, causes, problems to be solved, injustice to be fought, mistakes, fatigue, fear, laughter. But there is also this, in the space between one day and the next: silence, and stillness, and the chapel by night.