Anne Lamott, author, teacher, activist (1954- )
By Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Pantheon Press, 1999, pages 99-103.
Sam is the only kid he knows of who goes to church, who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to.
This is not exactly true. The truth is he never wants to go. What 7-year-old would rather be in church than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he’s there he enjoys himself, that he gets to spend the time drawing in the little room outside the sanctuary, or that he only actually has to sit still and listen during the short children’s sermon.
It does not help that I always pack some snacks, some Legos, his art supplies, and any friend of his whom we can lure into our churchy web. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there. All that matters to him is that he alone of all of his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.
You would think, noting the bitterness and the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks. And if you were to ask, this is what I would say.
I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly l00 pounds.
But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give Sam what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who are doing well psychologically, who seem conscious, who do not drive me crazy with their endlessly unhappy dramas; the only people I know who feel safe, who have what I want—connection, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, and who practice their faith. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own little candle; and they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can become a part of a great meaning.” Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food.
When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. It is where I was taken in when I had nothing to give. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—that it’s where, “when you show up, they have to let you in.” They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”
My relatives all live in the Bay Area and I adore them, but they are all as skittishly self-obsessed as I am, which I certainly mean in the nicest possible way. Let’s just say that I do not leave family gatherings with the feeling that I have just received some kind of spiritual chemotherapy. But I do when I leave St. Andrew though. It’s like something horrible inside of me is healing.
“Let’s go, baby,” I say cheerfully when it is time for us to leave for church, and Sam looks up at me like a puppy eyeing the vet who is standing there holding the needle.
Sam was welcomed and prayed for at St. Andrew seven months before he was born. When I announced during worship that I was pregnant, people cheered. All these old people, raised in Bible-thumping homes in the Deep South, clapped. Even the women whose grown-up boys had been or were doing time in jails or prisons rejoiced for me. It was so amazing.
I was single, only recently sober, and had no money. So immediately they set about providing for us. They brought clothes, they brought furniture, they brought me casseroles to keep in the freezer, and they brought me assurance that this baby was going to be a part of the family. And they began slipping me money.
Now, a number of the older black women live pretty close to the bone financially on small Social Security checks. But routinely they sidled up to me and stuffed bills in my pocket—tens and twenties. It was always done so stealthily that you might have thought they were slipping me cocaine. One of the most consistent donors was a very old woman named Mary Williams, who is in her mid-eighties now, so beautiful with her crushed hats and hallelujahs. She always brought me plastic Baggies full of dimes, noosed with little wire twists.
I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame, until I’d remember that wonderful line of Blake’s—that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love; and I would take a long deep breath and force these words out of my strangulated throat: “Thank you.”
I first brought Sam to church when he was five days old. The women there very politely pretended to care how I was doing but were mostly killing time until it was their turn to hold Sam again. They called him “our baby” or sometimes “my baby.” “Bring me my baby!” they’d insist. “Bring me that baby now!” “Hey, you’re hogging that baby.” I believe that they came to see me as Sam’s driver, hired to bring him and his gear back to them every Sunday.
Mary Williams always sits in the very back by the door. She is one of those unusually beautiful women—beautiful like a river. She has dark skin, a long broad nose, sweet full lips, and quiet eyes. She raised five children as a single mother, but one of her boys drowned when he was young, and she has the softness and generosity and toughness of someone who has endured great loss. During the service she praises God in a nonstop burble, a glistening dark brook. She says, “Oh, yes… Uh-huh… My sweet Lord… Thank you, thank you.”
Sam loves her, and she loves him, and she still brings us baggies full of dimes, even though I’m doing so much better now. Every Sunday I nudge Sam in her direction, and he walks to where she is sitting and hugs her. Then Sam leaves the sanctuary and returns to his drawings, his monsters, dinosaurs, birds.
I watch Mary Williams pray sometimes. She clutches her hands together tightly and closes her eyes only most of the way, so that she looks blind; and she is so unself-conscious that you get to see someone in a deeply interior pose. You get to see all that private intimate resting. She looks as if she’s holding the whole earth together, or making the biggest wish in the world. “Oh yes, Lord… Uh-huh.”
It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools—friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty—and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.
Psalm 119:105 — Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
Galatians 6:2 — Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Posted at St. Stephen’s Walbrook church, London; written by Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711):
O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship; narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power. God make the door of this house the gateway to thine eternal kingdom.