A Church that Prays Facing Outward
My father spent WWII in Italy, in a tank. During his first leave, he encountered an enchantress, a figure of surpassing beauty, sophistication, and mystery. My father was beguiled. If you have ever travelled in Italy, perhaps you have met her. The Italians call her La Serenissima, the most serene one—Venice. For a soldier who had spent his childhood on a farm in Appomattox and Sundays in a white clapboard Methodist chapel, Venice was fantastical place. His every letter to his bride from Venice ended with the promise that, someday, he would return with her and lead her through this magical city he had grown to love. But life intervened: first mine, then my sister’s, then his career, which took on a life of its own.
Dad would cheerfully talk about Italy, especially Venice, but he never spoke of the war itself. He refused. I remember only one exception. I was home from college, and Mother had made my favorite dinner. Afterwards she and my sister withdrew to wash dishes. (What can I say? It was the 60s, and Dad had married June Cleaver.) Dad and I remained at table and talked. By this point I had had almost a full year of psychology, which, in my mind, fully qualified me to ask this veteran how he had dealt with the war—emotionally, with bombs falling, cities falling, comrades falling. Surprisingly, he did not slug me. After of period of silence, he answered the question.
He had found a church; he would go there when the exigencies of war permitted. Sometimes he sought solace, only. But sometimes he prayed for the strength and courage to do the work he felt he himself had been given to do. His company had been out-maneuvered and sustained heavy losses. His second in command had been fatally wounded. On his next visit to the church, he asked for the strength to step through his own grief and write the man’s wife: the soldier had not only been his executive officer but his best friend. He asked for the courage to seek out the distraught elders of the small town thorough which, rather than around which, he had ordered tanks. It had been tactically necessary, but the market center had been reduced to medieval rubble, and a child had been killed. Dad also prayed for the courage to confront his commanding officer over the maltreatment of prisoners of war. He left the church resolved, and he accomplished those things.
Dad and I sat quietly. He then quoted the following verse: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will dwell with them.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “What was the name of the church? Where was it?” But the conversation had ended. I returned to school, looked up the passage, which is from the Book of Revelation, and thought, ah, Armageddon. I did not think about the passage again, for many years. Dad retired early, a family trip to Venice was planned; but before we could depart, Dad suffered a massive heart attack.
Three decades later, while my mother was in hospice, she summoned Tommy and me to her bedside and handed me a sandwich baggie filled with black and white photographs of my father in uniform, in Venice. She commissioned us to go to Venice, find and stand in the places my father had stood, take pictures, bring them back—and tell her about the city she would never see. The task was relatively simple: the bridges, monuments, churches were where my father had left them, where they had long been.
The few remaining photos were not of my father; I assumed he had taken them. I recognized the subject immediately: the Piazza San Marco. I stood in front of the basilica facing the square to take the required picture, but I realized Dad’s camera had been angled downward. I climbed the steps of the church: still not high enough. I entered the church, climbed more steps and exited onto the parapet over the great entrance. I looked through the viewfinder: almost a match, but now I was slightly too high. I knelt. The photograph and the camera image matched exactly. Then, with an electrical jolt, the revelations came.
First, I knew, with absolute certainty, I had found my father’s church—at the heart of the city he loved. Then I realized he had not merely knelt to take pictures: he had knelt to pray. I rested my head against the stone balustrade; and though they were all long dead, I prayed for the friend, the village elders, the prisoners, and Dad. Why, I asked myself, why did Dad pray on the balcony, facing outward, rather than inside the church? Then came the third, the most consequential of my realizations.
The verse from Revelation my father had quoted many years before is from chapter 21, very near the end of the book. It would surprise a number of people to learn that the final book of the bible does not end in annihilation, quite the contrary. The bible ends exactly as it begins, in an act of creation. The biblical narrative begins with the planting of a perfect garden and ends with the building of a sacred city. Here. We do not go up, God comes down. Our fondest prayer is answered: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on EARTH, as it is in heaven.” “He will dwell with them; they will be his people.” The kingdom of God will be established here, among us, and we are expected to help build it, act by act. I believe that is why Dad was on that balcony, facing outward, facing the city and the world. I choose to believe that, even in the midst of war, he was seeking the strength and courage to build.
In another time and another city, I was a member of large Episcopal church widely known to be politically, socially, liturgically conservative. In compensation it was a few feet from my apartment. This was during the period the national church was considering substantial changes to the prayer book that had been in use since 1928. I was surprised, and certainly confused, to hear my fellow parishioners were excited about the forthcoming revision, until I learned they intended to take advantage of the transition to revert to the 1662 prayer book. I had joined an antiquarian society. It was not a church that prayed facing outward.
But St. Mark’s does. If you have yet to visit the church’s new website, please do so. Malinda and her team have expended time, energy, money constructing a dynamic web presence for St. Mark’s. I invite you to click on the church history tab and the outreach tab. It is simply not possible to read our history and consider the breadth of our community involvements—or hear Paul and Kate Williams talk about the newly formed committee for social justice—without seeing a church that prays facing outward.
Who we are is why I came to St. Mark’s and why I have stayed. It is also why, in complete good conscience, I can ask you to support this church with your time and money. What I really want from every one of you is a pledge card, a tangible sign of your commitment to our common work and weal. We have received pledges that range from 50 cents a week to 1,000 dollars a month: everyone can pledge. If you already pledge, I ask you to consider joining me in increasing your pledge, so that we can reduce the frustrating annual draw on the investment account and better provide for our future.
I have not missed the irony of my being here, that at difficult times in our respective lives, my father and I both found our way to a St Mark’s church. One of the churches is much better known, but both lend solace to those who seek it. And both give strength and courage to those who pray facing outward, to those who intend to help build the Kingdom here. Thanks be to God.