03 September 2001

Silent Sermons

Sometimes Beauty & Simplicity say it All
contributed by Kay Goodnow

I grew up a Sunday Episcopalian and a Roman Catholic the rest of the time. I attended Notre Dame de Sion, a private Catholic French finishing school for girls. But I would go to church on Sundays at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 40th and Main Streets in Kansas City.

I do not remember much about what I was taught. I do remember that St. Paul’s had the most magnificent stained glass window I had ever seen. It was a round window, and the colors in it were predominantly red. During the years when I attended a youth group there on Sunday evenings, as the sun was setting in the west, the window would literally explode with color. It spoke to my heart and somehow it remained there. With the single exception of a white lamb with one paw raised, I do not remember what it depicted.

Some fifty years later I had occasion to be in the vicinity of that church and I went in, just to see. Although the building has been enlarged to accommodate classrooms and administrative offices, the sanctuary remains nearly the same. The red carpeting, which led from the front door to the altar and which I believed to be miles long, is gone, and has been replaced with hardwood floors. St. Paul’s is today, and probably always has been, a beautiful church. It has an air of majestic dignity and commands respect; to me it seems to call for silence, for meditation.

There it was, ‘my’ magnificent round red window. As in my youth, it took my breath away. It is pure beauty, and even today, undefiled. I wanted to stand there and let it speak to me, to let it repeat over and over again "I am here" just as it had in my youth. Tears started, but it was time for the church to be locked. I went away, glad that I had gone there.

There are beautiful things in this life.

When I was in the 7th or 8th grade a friend invited me to go with her family to the Benedictine Abbey in Conception, Missouri. I went, because it was something to do, but mainly because it was a Catholic thing to do. I do not remember the nature of what transpired or the reason for the trip; just that it was in winter and it was snowing.

It seemed like a very long trip to me and I was excited when we finally arrived. I stepped out of the car. It was early in the evening, but dark. Unmarked snow covered the fields and the buildings. I felt no sense of cold, only awe at the pure beauty of the stark but regal landscape. I wanted to stay there forever, and just let my feelings be what they were.

When we entered the monastery (in my memory, the word ‘basilica’ replaces ‘monastery’) we were ushered into a chapel, which also was dark. Only the eternal tabernacle light and what seemed like millions of vigil lights, red, blue green and gold, kept it from total darkness. I was mesmerized. I could not move and I do not remember breathing. The round, red window from St. Paul’s placed itself squarely above that massive altar, high up, nearly to where the two sides joined in an arch. It was a perfect place, one of those perfect moments in time. The tears began, but this time no one hurried me away from the beauty and I was content.

When the chanting started I believed I was imagining something or that my ears were deceiving me. Here was more beauty and, as with the window and the snow, it was pure and unadulterated. I let it pour over me and I consumed it. It spoke to my heart. As it grew in volume and complexity, sometimes changing from full tone to half tone, and sometimes changing cadence, I knew that it would always remain with me.

At first I didn’t hear the words. I heard only the quality of the sound and the love that it conveyed. I could feel the peace that lived in the hearts of those monks who were singing. And then I heard the words of praise and knew them as Lauds, the Evening Prayer. The Latin came and went in my mind and in my heart and then I was hearing, over and over again, "I am here."
There are beautiful things in this life.

I believe that all of us experience what the camera industry refers to as a "Kodak moment." They are to be treasured, as time passes quickly and our lives become full of the demands that added responsibilities incur.

The beautiful moments come more frequently now, for me anyway, ‘mellowing’ with age and experience. I had one just this week that I feel is more than significant. I had just met a grandmother and we were exchanging glorious stories and enjoying the fact that grandchildren are well worth the effort of having lived through the agony of raising our children. She related that two of her granddaughters, ages two and four, are learning to pray. She was laughing.

"The two-year-old is just starting to form sentences," she said, "except for when she prays. We can’t get her to say anything other than ‘God is.’"

God is! Time, and my heart, stopped. Reality stopped. My heart filled with so much golden light that I had to give it away but it kept coming back, stronger each time. God is! Blessed is that child who knows that God, simply, is!

The tears, always there as my companion in a time of great joy, began. My mind wondered how and when all of life became so complicated, so frenzied, so duplicitous.

For me, the stained glass window, the snow, the vigil lights and the Gregorian chant are linked somehow to ‘silent sermons’. Their simple beauty, etched delicately in my memory, remains constant, long after the spoken words have faded. But then, so is a baby’s first smile, the crocus in spring, and the magnetic pull of the tides. Life is beautiful in it’s simplicity. God is!

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