After going off to college in the early 1970s and becoming a proud agnostic, Tommy Hilton nevertheless yields to the temptation to participate in Youth Sunday during Thanksgiving break back at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Published in Lynx Eye, a Scribblefest Literary Group Publication (November 2001).
(NOTE: Because Lynx Eye has gone out of business, I am including the entire story here, rather than just an excerpt.)
You could hardly blame me for loving church when I was a kid. After all, my family attended St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a magnificent Gothic edifice renowned for its stained glass rose window even more than for its well-connected and prosperous congregation. No one in my family appreciated the church as much as I did. My brothers all squirmed their way through every service they were forced to attend and used Sunday School as an opportunity to perfect the art of goofing off. Dad was more committed to the church, serving as one of its deacons; but, truth be told, he did that only because Mr. Allbright, the head of his company, was also a member of St. Thomas’s. Mother was equally active, but in an aesthetic more than spiritual way, her activities limited to things like chairing the flower committee or raising money to restore the rose window.
I, on the other hand, was transported into another realm every time I entered the church. The sheer height of the ceiling drew my spirit upward, as great cathedrals were supposed to do. I saw God’s reflection in all the details, his face in the images of Jesus, his very words in the Revised Standard English edition of the Bible, his generosity in the overflowing contents of the offering plates, his clarifying purity in the flames of the candles, his chaste sensuousness in the smell of the incense. Even the scratches on the pews caused by the shoes of generations of impatient children spoke to me of God, reminding me that Jesus said, “Blessed are the children.” Yes, I was as enthusiastic a member of the congregation as you could find at St. Thomas’s.
But, of course, all that changed when I went off to Columbia University in the late sixties. I found philosophical notions like Plato’s eternal Ideas, Descartes’s cogito and Husserl’s eidetic reduction more compelling than the notion of Jesus Christ. The former were crisp concepts open to rational discussion. The latter was vague and sloppy, raising too many unanswerable questions. And what any of that had to do with the robes and trappings of St. Thomas’s I no longer understood. So I severed my ties with the church – not with a bang, just a whimper. Or so I thought.
One day during my sophomore year, I received a letter from St. Thomas’s. It appeared to be a personal letter from the Reverend Peter Smythe (rhymes with “scythe”), which I found odd, for I’d never received any correspondence from the church while I was away at school, and certainly no personal correspondence from Father Smythe. I opened the beige envelope gingerly, half expecting the Holy Spirit itself to fly out and admonish me for my recent defection from the church, but was relieved and amused to discover that Father Smythe simply wanted to invite me to participate in Youth Sunday Service during Thanksgiving break. He went on to explain that college students would run the whole service. I saw this innocent invitation as a godsend, so to speak, an opportunity to vent some spleen at the church, to show Father Smythe that I now occupied new Heights (Morningside rather than Cleveland). So rather than simply decline his kind invitation by reply mail, I opted to put all my thoughts and feelings about the church down on paper. Tommy Hilton’s 95 Theses? Perhaps. As I took over the living room, dashing off page after page, my roommates assumed I was gearing up to pull an all-nighter for English Lit 201: Seven Modern Poets, a notoriously difficult course, and gave me a wide berth.
Dear Rev. Smythe, I began. The very salutation gave me pause. I used to think of him as our congregation’s conduit to God, an ordinary man, yet also not so ordinary, like Jesus Himself. Now I was addressing him informally in a letter (note the use of a comma instead of a colon), as if he were just some pal I was dashing a note off to. But he’s just a man, I reminded myself. And I’m not so sure God even exists. I lowered the pen and plunged ahead.
Thank you for your invitation to participate in this year’s Youth Sunday. Your well-intended invitation has prompted me to write you what is perhaps a long overdue letter.
Ah, the impertinence of youth!
You may have noticed that I haven’t been attending services at St. Thomas’s for some time now. The explanation is not simply my being away at college. I haven’t been attending any church here either. I have simply decided to turn away from the institution of the church. Some people might think this merely a “phase” associated with being away at college and starting to question the Establishment, as college students are wont to do. But I believe this breech had its roots back in high school where I had already planted seeds of doubt concerning things I had previously taken for granted. College has simply provided a more fertile ground for the maturation of these seeds, which have now sprouted and grown into full-fledged flowers of skepticism.
I wish I could write with such confidence today, spouting purple metaphors to make my point.
Put simply, I have left the church because I no longer share its basic beliefs and because I no longer consider the church a relevant institution. For starters, I can no longer accept the church’s view of Jesus. I believe that such a man existed, that he was a great man, and that he did and said many great things. But I don’t believe he was the “son of God,” a perfect being who was sent to earth by God, died for our sins and was resurrected. Nor do I think any reasonable person could believe these things.
“But, of course, Tommy,” my therapist once said. “No rational person believes such things.” The rush of presidential candidates in recent years to profess their faith in Jesus suggests that not everyone agrees with my therapist.
Why do people believe in Christ anyway? Some point to the Bible, but that’s hardly proof of anything. The Bible was written by men, not God – men with the same human weaknesses and limitations that we have. The Bible was simply the attempt by these men to express in literary forms they were familiar with their thoughts about God as well as their explanations for natural and historical phenomena. It can’t be a source for believing in Christ, because it’s simply the documentation of their beliefs. This isn’t to deny the Bible its value. It’s an inspiring book. But it’s no proof of the issues it deals with. No reasonable person should believe anything just because the Bible tells him to.
Perhaps I was thinking of that song I loved when I was a kid, one I learned at St. Thomas’s Sunday School. “Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” This would not be the last time I’d have to forsake lyrics I had grown to love.
Others take a historical perspective, impressed by all the great people down through the ages who believed in Christ and all the great art He inspired. But this reasoning is spurious, too. Lots of great people believed things that had no solid basis. As for the great art, that’s an aesthetic matter, not proof of anything. Finally, some point to mystical experience as the ultimate source of a person’s belief in Christ, but I’m afraid I can’t imagine what that would be like, having never had a mystical experience. Until I do, I’m afraid I just don’t think there’s any solid basis for my believing in Christ.
Does all this make me a bad person, a sinner, a condemned man? If it does, I’m certainly not alone. I challenge you to go through the congregation pew by pew, starting with Mrs. Anderson and ending with Mr. Zeigler, and ask them if they believe in Christ and, if so, why. I bet you’d hear one shaky explanation after another, variations on the ones I’ve laid out here. The only difference between me and the members of your congregation is that I have the guts to say these things. Furthermore, I don’t see the relevance of believing in Christ. Does one necessarily become a better person when one believes that Jesus is the Son of God? Obviously not. (Need I cite examples?) Can’t one become a better person without Christ in their life? Since the majority of the world’s population doesn’t believe in Christ, what’s the point of trying to convert them? Aren’t there more important issues to deal with? Isn’t it more important to become a good person – perhaps a person like Jesus – than to worry about whether or not Jesus really was the Son of God? This brings me to my final point.
I marvel at my youthful endurance. The letter, like most back then, was hand written. Having written nothing by hand longer than a postcard ever since the word processor came along, I can’t imagine having the stamina to write at such length today.
I no longer see the relevance of an institution like the church. That’s because I think the church is the wrong place to address spiritual questions, the most important questions a person can contemplate. What is life? What is God? What is my relationship to God? What is my place in the eternity of time and the infinity of space? These are eternal questions, ones that demand the attention of a free mind capable of contemplating what is infinite. By contrast, the church is all about limits and limitations, the physical limitation of the church structure, the limitations of the shared beliefs of the congregation and the increasingly rigid services and rituals that take place within the church’s walls. Today, it seems to me, churches are simply pockets of complacency, places where people sign up, as if joining a country club, and simply go along with the program, questioning nothing. Worse than that, they’re the cause of divisiveness, as members of each religious group look down on, if not actually go to war with, members of opposing groups. Why must we be divided into these structured groups when we consider the ultimate questions of life? Why can’t we sit around a room or outside in a field – believers in Christ, believers in Buddha, believers in Mohammed, believers in God, believers in nothing – and talk? No structure, no services, no protocol? Just don’t say we’ll meet every Sunday!
Arriving back home in Ohio the night before Thanksgiving, I settled into my favorite armchair upstairs in the TV room only to be startled awake by Mother’s voice summoning me to the phone.
“Welcome home, my boy,” the voice began. The caller identified himself as Father Smythe, but I couldn’t connect the voice with the face, having never spoken to our priest on the phone before. “I want you to know how much I appreciated your letter,” he continued. Was he kidding? Was he setting me up for a verbal thrashing? He went on to make a surreal proposition. “We’d love to have you participate in the Youth Sunday Service this weekend and read your letter to the congregation from the pulpit.”
“But, Father Smythe,” I replied, wondering if he’d even read the letter, “my letter criticizes the church. I don’t think it’s something your congregation would want to hear.”
“Nonsense, my boy!” he insisted. “We’re very open minded at St. Thomas’s. Every year we turn the pulpit over to our college kids on Youth Sunday. You run the show. You can say whatever you please. Wendy Harris is going to be speaking on student rights and Karl Freund is going to talk about peace. Your letter will fit in just fine. What do you say?”
Trapped like a rat, I thought, but curiosity made me agree to participate. Mother and Dad were overjoyed by the news. Dad had been mildly embarrassed ever since I stopped attending services, dodging Mr. Allbright’s questions about my whereabouts, fearing his censure if he knew the truth. Mother was less concerned, figuring it part of the natural order of things that children stop attending church when they go off to college – at least until they get married, settle down and once again find it socially helpful to join a church. Nevertheless, she was delighted that I was participating in the service. When my parents arrived at church, Dad worked his way up through the crowd to make sure they sat next to Mr. and Mrs. Albright.
“I notice your son’s name on the program, Hilton,” Mr. Allbright said, as Dad beamed. “It’s nice to see the lost lambs find their way back to the fold,” he continued.
“We’re very proud of him,” Dad replied, tapping Mother on the knee, a gesture that always indicated he was excited. Mother smiled, appreciating any physical contact from her husband. Meanwhile, I was upstairs with the other Youth Sunday Service participants in Father Smythe’s office facing my own little drama. Having donned red choir robes, Wendy Harris and Karl Freund sat obediently awaiting last minute instructions from the priest. Mrs. Morton, Father Smythe’s able but beleaguered assistant, stood patiently above me holding out a robe, while I kept insisting I wasn’t going to wear one. She simply smiled and made fresh attempts to hand the robe over to me until I yelled out, “No!” just as the door opened. Mrs. Morton jumped back and dropped the robe, startled more by Father Smythe’s sudden entrance than by my boldness, I choose to believe. She blushed as she stooped to pick up the garment, averting his glance.
“What’s this all about?” Father Smythe called out with that angry hollow sound he used so effectively in his sermons. Reminding himself that this service was his opportunity to reach out to this most tricky of generations, he abruptly changed intonation, joking, “Are you engaging in fisticuffs with my assistant?”
“I’m sorry, Father Smythe,” I volunteered. “I was just trying to explain to Mrs. Morton that I didn’t want to wear a robe.”
“Oh, I see,” he replied, looking puzzled. “Mrs. Morton is an innocent victim here. The red robes were my idea. Since all of you used to sing in the Junior Choir, I thought you might enjoy wearing them during the service.” He punctuated his observation by sitting down behind his desk, putting a manageable distance between himself and his young congregates. “But if you prefer, you can wear the white robes the senior choir uses.”
“I have no problem wearing a red robe,” Wendy offered, shooting a sideward glance in my direction.
“This has nothing to do with the color of the robe,” I explained, looking alternately at Karl and Wendy, before turning back to Father Smythe and bracing my hands on the edge of his desk as I stood to make my point. “And I’m not trying to tell anyone else what to do. You see, the letter you’ve asked me to read at the service is critical of the church and all organized religion. I’m not sure it even belongs in this service, but since you invited me to present it, I’ve agreed to go ahead and do that. But for me to stand up there wearing a robe seems wrong. It’s hypocritical. I’m sorry, I just won’t do it.” Father Smythe rolled his chair back away from the desk slowly and cautiously while listening to my little speech.
When I finished, he pulled himself forward in one swift move, announcing, “You’re right. You shouldn’t have to wear a robe.”
“If Tommy doesn’t wear a robe, is it OK if I don’t either?” Karl asked. “I never liked these things in the first place.”
“That’s fine, Karl,” Father Smythe replied. “In fact, why don’t you all take off your robes? This is a special service, so a little deviation from the normal practice is perfectly acceptable.”
Wendy, looking disappointed, chimed in. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep my robe on,” she said, nodding to punctuate her point. “I like wearing it.”
“Tell you what, Wendy,” Father Smythe replied, standing up to lead us downstairs. “Why don’t you take it off? I think that’ll work better all around.” Wendy frowned at me as she obediently and glumly handed the robe over to Mrs. Morton, who dutifully carried the pile of robes out of the office and set them aside to hang up after the service. We followed Father Smythe downstairs and waited at the back of the church for the service to begin. After the choir filed in, Father Smythe signaled us to follow them as he headed up the rear. Fumbling my way down the aisle, I marveled at the choir’s ability to walk in step, carry an open hymnal, and sing the chosen hymn all at the same time. When the hymn ended, I plunked myself down on a pew up on stage as Father Smythe approached the pulpit.
“Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the children,’” he bellowed out. The rustling in the pews died down as Father Smythe stared at the congregation in one of his dramatic pauses. “Well, today we are doubly blessed, for not only have our children come home, they are also running the service. Today is Youth Sunday, that special day of the year when our young college congregates step up to the pulpit to address the rest of us and celebrate the Lord’s presence in their own special ways. Our children come back to us every year with renewed faith. Faith that has been tested by exposure to the wider world. Faith that is stronger as a result of that exposure. Today you will hear three fine examples of students praising the Lord in their own special way.
“We will be privileged and honored to begin with Wendy Harris, who will speak to us about student rights, a subject much in the news lately. Then Karl Freund will step up and speak to us about peace, something that weighs heavily on our minds as war continues to rage halfway around the world in Southeast Asia. Finally, Thomas Hilton will share his personal view of the church, reminding us that each of us, in our own way, must make the Lord’s words and vision relevant to our lives. Please rise now and share a moment of prayer with me before we receive these special gifts from our children.”
I stood along with all the others, wondering if remaining seated would have been more appropriate for someone in my situation. When the prayer ended and the congregation sat back down, I hissed at Wendy to prompt her to take her place at the pulpit. Staring menacingly back at me until she realized it was her time, she suddenly jumped up, tripping over her high heels in the process. Barely five feet tall, she seemed a timid child behind the pulpit, just clearing it. In a small voice, she addressed the congregation.
"I am honored and delighted to be back at St. Thomas's," she began, pausing to catch her breath and calm her nerves. The congregation smiled, as they did at the kindergarten music recitals held in the same space every spring. The child continued. "I am going to talk to you about student life today." Student life? I thought. Not student life! You're supposed to talk about student RIGHTS. Her subtle change in topic was suspicious. She proceeded to describe a typical week at The Redeemer College, a small Baptist school in southern Ohio. She droned on and on about course requirements and extracurricular activities and her major in industrial psychology. I stared incredulously at her back. From my position, she was dwarfed by the height of the ceiling and the depth of the church. She seemed like a mouse addressing an invisible giant in a suitably sized house. And like that mouse, she seemed to address the giant as politely as possible, begging it not to unleash its wrath. Did the giant care about her class schedule, I wondered? Or did she know something I didn’t? Would the giant unleash his fury on me when I spoke my challenging words, words that questioned the validity of its house? I started to pay attention again when I felt the ending must surely be near and found her finally addressing the topic that had been advertised.
“I would like to conclude by saying something about student rights,” she said in a new voice, one that no longer feared the giant. “I know that student protesters have been in the news on some of our other campuses here in Ohio, but I just want to say that when you attend a college or university, you know what the rules are before you even arrive. If you don’t like the rules, then you don’t have to attend that school. This is America, after all. You have the freedom to choose. But if you choose to attend, then you have an obligation to respect those rules and follow them to the letter. Otherwise, you should leave and go somewhere else. Thank you. The Lord be with you.” With that, Wendy Harris nodded, then stepped back and resumed her seat, looking right at me as she settled back down, her cheeks a bright red color, the same shade as the robe she no longer wore, thanks to me. No one batted an eye. Perhaps no one had listened. That must be it, I reasoned. People must just sit and daydream on Youth Sunday, staring past the young speakers, calling up images of the little boys and girls they used to be. While I contemplated this possibility, the next speaker rose and stepped up to the pulpit.
You tell them, Karl! Since Karl had been on my side in the robe rebellion, I figured he might spout something inflammatory (or at least interesting). Peace – the perfect topic. You tell these worshipers how their complacency fuels the fires and destruction that our country perpetuates in Vietnam and other places around the world. You tell them, Karl! Though much larger than Wendy, Karl Freund nevertheless also seemed dwarfed by the huge church engulfing him. I realized then that the church was designed to make everyone feel small and humbled. No human being could possibly assume a position of significance here. But I didn’t think it was God who pulled this trick, for we know I had serious doubts about His existence. No, it was the architect who’d built this palace of Oz right in Cleveland Heights. Unlike the Wizard, however, he wasn’t still working the controls from behind the curtain. He was long gone, but his work lived on to accomplish his goal, Karl Freund offering proof of his brilliance, for here was Karl, that six foot two football star from Ohio State who usually inspired awe in those who crossed his path, standing like a little boy lost, more than respectful of his invisible host. Did I detect a trembling in his voice?
“Father Smythe and fellow members of St. Thomas’s,” he began. “Let us pray.” Pray? I thought. You’re supposed to lecture these people about peace and their complicity in the war raging halfway around the world! My heart sank as I heard Karl, my last hope, drone on about Jesus and peace and hope and love. It was the kind of prayer you could have heard at any service at any church or temple in the world, at any time, during any war, or any time of peace for that matter. When Karl resumed his seat, looking more drained than after the Indiana game, I looked up at the pulpit as if at a gallows. Why was I doing this? Father Smythe’s notion of Youth Sunday Service was obviously out of touch with reality, so my agreement with him was null and void. But I’d seen enough showbiz movies to know that when it’s your turn to go out on stage, you toss aside all fears and reservations and go on with the show.
I went up to the podium and looked out at the congregation, grabbing the microphone with both hands as if it were a lifeline, looking in vain for a friendly face in the crowd. It was almost impossible to make out any individuals from up there. I couldn’t really make out anything at all. But what confronted me wasn’t an invisible giant; it was just a large, anonymous mass – not so frightening, I concluded, remembering Barbra Streisand’s remark that it was easier to perform before a large audience in a concert hall than before a small group in a living room. But unlike Babs, I had no songs or golden voice at my disposal. I didn’t even have an opening joke or clever remark. All I had was my goddamned letter – or should I just say “damned” under the circumstances?
“Members of the congregation,” I began, pausing to settle on a strategy. I opted for simply voicing my observations of the moment. “I’ve never stood up here before. Of course, when I sang in the Youth Choir years ago I stood up on this stage all the time, as some of you may remember. But, I’ve never stood right at the pulpit. Believe me, it’s an awe-inspiring sight from up here. You should try it some time.” A couple of chuckles echoed around the hall, making me suddenly want to please this audience. I paused again, searching for the right thing to say. “You should all be proud of this beautiful edifice that your generous offerings continue to support,” I said, resorting to bald flattery. “Its beauty has never been so obvious to me as it is at this moment.” God, I don’t want to read this letter, I thought. I want these people to like me, not revile me. “It’s almost a shame to do anything other than comment on its beauty. But, Father Smythe asked me to read you a letter, so I’m afraid that’s what I’m going to have to do.” You apologetic coward! “The letter was never intended for your ears. It was a personal letter to our priest. I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to be reading it at this pulpit, but I’m just going to assume that Father Smythe knows what he’s doing. After all, he’s got better connections to the Big Guy than I do, doesn’t he?” More chuckles, so delicious!
And so I read my letter, racing faster and faster as I approached the end. And lo, the earth did not crack open and swallow me up. It simply kept rotating on its axis. When I sat down, the service continued without missing a beat. Even Wendy acted as if nothing had happened. But something had happened, damn it! I had challenged the very existence of Christianity, implying that everyone in the room was a hypocrite – or at least spiritually shallow. Well, so what? Big deal. All that mattered was that it was over. At the end of the service, Father Smythe rushed us into the Edwards Room adjoining the church.
Did I detect a smirk when he patted me on my back, saying, “Fine job, Tommy”? He continued patting me as he said, “Just do me one more favor and stand in the receiving line with me. The Lord will thank you.” While I did my duty, awaiting the Lord’s thanks, I felt as if I were at a wedding, though not sure if I represented the groom’s side or the bride’s. People were certainly dressed up enough, though that was typical at St. Thomas’s, where every Sunday provided another opportunity for its members to display their keen sartorial sense. And the comments were certainly just as banal as the ones I might have received on a wedding reception line. Lots of “Thanks for participating” and “So good to see you.” Is that all there is to reading a letter from the pulpit, Peggy Lee? My prayer for something more was answered soon enough. I could see Mr. Allbright’s abundant frame advancing toward me, my parents taking up the rear. He was almost pushing his way through the crowd, as if they were giving out Hostess Cupcakes at the end of the line. He shook Wendy’s and Karl’s hands dismissively, clearly holding out for bigger things. Finally, he gripped my handshake with both hands and held on tightly as he launched into an obviously planned speech.
“I’ll say one thing for you, Tommy Hilton,” he began, clenching his teeth while breathing heavily and bearing down on the handshake. “You’ve got balls. It’s not everyone who could stand before a community like this, a community that cares for you and helped raise you, and spit at us. Because that’s what you did, didn’t you?” At least someone was listening.
“That’s not how I see it,” I objected. “As I explained, I never intended...”
“Just remember something,” he interrupted, towering over me now while I empathized with my father, who must have been subjected to similar treatment on numerous occasions during their many years of working together. “It’s easy to tear things down. It’s easy not to believe. But where does that leave you? What’ll you be left with when you’re lying there on your death bed? Believe me, Tommy, someday you’ll see the light. Then you’ll be back up at that pulpit begging our forgiveness – no, begging God’s forgiveness. Just don’t wait too long, in case He forgets who you are in the meantime.” Mr. Allbright let go of my hand and moved on down the receiving line, with my parents in tow. Dad didn’t even look at me as he tried to keep up with his boss, poor man. Mother, looking a bit perturbed herself, managed to peck me on the cheek before obediently following her husband and his employer on down the line.
Father Smythe pretended not to be listening, but I could feel his satisfaction. Mr. Albright’s words still ringing in my ears, I spied a friendlier face further down the receiving line, an old man I’d never seen before. He appeared to be alone and not quite as splendidly turned out as his fellow church members, the collar of his blue buttoned-down shirt slightly worn, the poorly knotted striped tie clashing with his striped navy blue suit. I also couldn’t help noticing he’d done a poor job of shaving that morning, several clusters of gray stubble in evidence.
He shook my hand gently, smiled pleasantly and said, “I enjoyed your letter very much, young man. I agree with everything you said.” His smile radiated kindness, so I assumed there was no irony in his statement.
“If that’s true, why do you come to church?” I sensed he wouldn’t mind my impertinent question. He looked furtively in Father Smythe’s direction before turning back to me.
“For the company,” he replied, before adding in a lowered voice, “And the refreshments.” He winked at me before proceeding down the line.