The kingdom of the kirk

THE small church in our Lowland parish is, like most of us, hit by inflation. To cut down on expense, some members of the congregation offer their services as cleaners. Once a month I set off up the beech-lined village street, prepared for work: It is quite an undertaking to clean a kirk single-handedly. Silence meets me as I open the door, no welcoming peal of bells or organ, only the familiar perfume of old oak and leather, flowers on the communion table, and the dusty odor of age. The church has reached its 100th year. My sole companions are gold and russet butterflies that flutter on shafts of sunshine and a field mouse scuttering off down the aisle.

I climb up the winding staircase that leads to the old manse, into a labyrinth of corridors. I open the door of the study where our minister of some 20 years ago would sit, for hours on end, discussing theology, quoting his favorite poets, Shakespeare and Browning.

``When the fight begins within himself, a man's worth something,'' he would say, countering our incertitudes and waverings with his own certainty. ``Never leave growing till the life to come!'' Now, in this setting, his kindly, weary face and eager eyes reappear, and the very intonation of his voice comes back: ``What's midnight's doubt before the dayspring's faith?''

As I sweep up dust and plaster, I look down over the tangled manse garden, so dearly loved by our next minister. From this same window he watched foxes play with their cubs by moonlight, badgers and fallow deer pass by, swallows nest in the eaves and bell tower.

``Should we ring the chimes?'' he once asked anxiously. ``It might disturb the birds.'' He wove his passion for wildlife, quoting Whitman: ``I could turn and live with animals....''

``He preaches more to the fowls of the air than to us!'' old Matthew once exclaimed, half indignant. ``What's St. Francis doing in a Presbyterian parish!''

I return down the stairway and into the vestry. There I become aware that I am being watched. Eyes follow me as I work; around the walls hang pictures of former pastors. Here, generation after generation, they have reflected on their sermons, hoping to stir the apathetic, to sow some small seed of faith.

The first of them was bearded and fierce, an Old Testament prophet. From his frame he appraises me critically: What am I doing in his domain? His successors are milder men, but they share that look of unflinching integrity, that refusal to lower their standards in permissive times. Here we stand, they seem to say.

I finish cleaning the vestry and enter the silent church, where so much of our village life has centered, where episodes have taken place that are listed in the annals of the kirk.

There was the night of the great gale when the bell crashed down, nearly crushing several members of the congregation. Another time the thickest fog of the century invaded the church, creeping along the pews, twining about the minister in his pulpit so that he was there one minute and had vanished the next.

Various village characters, eccentrics, go down in the kirk chronicles. There was Matthew; his obsession was saving the church expense.

There was Sam, the sermon gatherer; he collected stamps thematically, then turned to collecting sermons in the same way. He kept a record of topics - burning fiery furnaces, small, still voices, the gnashing of teeth in outer darkness, lands flowing with milk and honey, reeds shaken in the wind.

When Sam wearied of this, he took to timing the sermon or counting how many he had heard in a lifetime of listening. ``Twenty-five and three-quarter minutes today,'' he would announce, coming out of church, or, ``Five hundred and forty-nine to date.''

``And much good they have done you, all those sermons, you unctious gomeral!'' Matthew declared, rounding on him. We listened to them, bellowing at each other, exchanging insults as they set off after the morning service.

``Sanctimonious skunner!'' ``Parsimonious screeving sumph!'' Their voices would fade off into the distance.

``How those Christians love one another,'' the chief elder said with a smirk.

From the pulpit, as from a peak in Darien, I look down on those pews where at harvest season weary farmers slump, struggling with sleep. I see the brass plates on the wall bearing the names of the village dead in two world wars.

I dust away cobwebs, chase off scuttling black spiders, see where mice and moths have nibbled at the velvet cushions. All around are echoes of voices singing: ``Behold the Mountain of the Lord,'' ``Oh for a Thousand Tongues,'' ``Rock of Ages.''...

Down there the Last Supper is celebrated, at Armistice the Last Post has sounded out of the dank November mist in the churchyard.

In the last years a new minister has turned us into stargazers. With him we have watched shooting stars, seen a shower of Leonids, gathered to watch for Halley's comet. ``None of us here now will see that again!'' we think with awe. We are united in a sense of the wonder and mystery of the universe as we stand there under the night sky. What will have happened to our children's children, to our planet Earth, by the time that comet reappears?

I tidy away brooms and brushes, see where the windows are cracked, the roof damp above the pulpit where it leaks in rain. A clock chimes in the vestry.

Time remembered. I must not forget to wind it before I leave.

I shut the door behind me. A mere morning's work is over, yet I feel as if I had lived through a hundred years of doubts and beliefs, strivings and sorrows, deeds of compassion and kindliness, in the little kingdom of the kirk.

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