It is the Sunday before the feast of Saint Patrick, the third Sunday of Lent, and my wife and I enter our church, a parish we joined after our move to a new city. We walk inward and away from the sharp, clear, open sky and into the soft, warm, rainbow light transfigured by stained-glass windows.
We seek the end of an aisle in a far corner, a place to kneel opposite the altar and lectern, and a place before Him who soon will be called among us from bread and wine. We have attended this parish for only a few months, and we want a quiet, comfortable space, a place at the edge of the ancient ceremony where we might watch, listen and be drawn into the communion of believers.
We have a female lector for the morning’s Mass. Nothing unusual. We are post-Vatican II Catholics, after all, and we glory in the works of female lectors, in young women servers assisting at the altar, and in women offering the Body and Blood. We await only the revelation that those among us now who are most like “apostle to the apostles,” the woman of Magdala who wept with Mary at the foot of the cross, might prepare and offer the Eucharist.
Our lector this morning, clad conservatively in a beige suit, speaks clearly and compellingly as she progresses through the first reading. She is a mature woman who stands before us and reads without self-regard. We hear the Words of Jehovah as written down by the people of the First Covenant. I admire the lector’s calm ability, and I think perhaps she is a school teacher or otherwise occupied in a venue that requires assurance, presence and the implicit belief that an audience’s eyes are focused and ears are open. The reading is finished, and she steps down to join us who have gathered.
I hear ripples and murmurs as the congregation reaches for the missals. Then, from behind me, from near the alcove where candles burn away in prayers to heaven, I hear a sonorous, powerful bass voice ring out.
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
The pace, rhythm and tone are majestic. I feel the words ringing down the centuries, without faltering, without hesitation. Admonitions. Chidings. I listen closely.
“For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
I am no Biblical scholar. I came late in life to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I am a man who once sat in hardwood, stiff-back country pews and watched hellfire and damnation rain down like sweat from the preacher’s brow. Even now, I still love that voice of blessed assurance. I cannot resist lingering for a moment, ignoring my wife’s impatience, if the television remote accidentally finds an evangelist rising on tiptoes, swinging his arms, raising his voice to proclaim the Good News. I am captured always by the Gospel being preached with authority, with moral surety, with the cry of a soul caught up in rapture.
Whether in the voice of the learned scholar, the itinerant preacher or the radio evangelist, the Word lives. Whether spoken in sincerity or in hypocrisy, the Word holds the power of God.
And these words, here at this Mass, are familiar, childhood-comfortable, poetically beautiful. Suddenly I know, know with the heady certainty of the untutored, that I am hearing a lecture straight from the quill of that proto-Protestant, the apostle Paul, singing out a passionate truth I would deny.
The verses continue. The would-be prophet stands behind me, but I do not turn to look. Neither priest nor server nor cantor move. The congregation sits silent.
My wife and I turn to one another, confused. We have left a small church, one where we knew everyone by name. We feel lost in this new, much larger congregation. The once comforting, intimate rituals are slightly off-kilter. With each ringing word being recited behind us, with every verse resonating with authority and confidence, we believe we again are being presented with something new to learn.
My wife frowns and shakes her head slightly, and I smile and raise my eyebrows. We read one another’s thoughts—that perhaps an angel walks among us—but if that’s so, he is delivering a message we cannot understand.
“Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety,” Paul’s emissary continues to instruct us.
Twenty, 30 seconds pass. Finally, our priest stands and nods to the organist. She glances nervously at him and then toward the rear of the church. She begins to play. Loud. Louder.
I see the ushers scramble toward the back of the church as the organ sings out, but the lone voice continues to echo around the room and across the altar. I turn to watch two of the ushers approach a burly middle-age man, rough beard, rougher clothes. His beard and hair are straw-colored, and he wears a heavy backpack but carries no burden other than to proclaim his truth.
The ushers begin to escort the preacher gently toward the door. A plastic sack waves cheerily from the flap of the man’s pack, and with each step his recitation continues, word for perfect word. The ushers attempt to move him quickly, but he does not hurry, and his beautiful voice maintains its stately rhythm. He never stammers, each verse marshaled to follow perfectly in cadence: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?”
The words begin to fade, slowly, then nearly muffled as this itinerant preacher, this prophet without honor, is led through the alcove. Finally the words of Saint Paul’s long-ago instructions disappear altogether as the speaker is moved outside the church.
“Actually, Charlotte,” our priest says to the lector as he reaches the pulpit, “I thought you read rather well.” Nervous titters ripple through the congregation. We have come to worship. We did not expect to be chastised.
My wife reaches for my hand. “Poor soul,” she says.
The Mass continues. When the ushers return, they stay near the exit doors of the church, there to stand vigil. I drift, thinking of John along the River Jordan, and his camel’s-hair coat, and locusts and wild honey.
I had chosen John the Baptist as my patron saint, in spite of my preference for negotiation rather than confrontation. The baptizer fascinates me, that prophet who acted with passion and met his fate with courage.
I think about what I will do if our Lenten prophet, our itinerant preacher, waits for us outside. I doubt he will offer John’s warning, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
No, I’m sure he will believe that we who stand upon Peter’s rock will need more of Paul, that Pharisee persecutor turned apostle, that man who believed God gave one half of His people dominion over the other. “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.”
That night, I feel my wife stir and see the shadow of her arm move against the pale window light. “Are you awake?” I ask.
A soft “Yes,” and she turns to press her forehead to my shoulder.
I seek her help, need her help—to comprehend what I have witnessed, raw and unexpected, in a place where I try to believe, in a place where Paul’s words are never heard in such a way as happened this day, but yet in a place where men reign and women serve. I covet my wife’s certitude. I want to be sustained by her faith, to cling to it, to hide within it, to seek her assurance that the Church can never reveal all that God would tell us.
“Why,” I ask, “do you think there remain elements within Christianity who consider women less than men?”
“You’re forgetting about Mary and all the saints,” she says, drifting again into sleep. If she has doubts, she hides them in her prayers, finds refuge in her faith, rests certain that beyond the border of creation we will, man and woman, be seen as we are—wholly one.
I wait alone in the night, not so full of grace, silent, wondering if the itinerant preacher will pray for us sinners, but certain only that I will arise every day left to me, prepared to wander on, clad in my rough, thin, frayed faith, hard-burdened by ambiguity, insecurity and anxiety, ever in search of the Holy Mystery.
Gary Presley lives in southern Missouri. After working in the insurance business and commercial radio, he began writing. His work has appeared in Catholic Digest, Salon.com, The Ozark Mountaineer and Drexel Online Journal. His memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, is scheduled to be published by the University of Iowa Press this autumn.