Churchgoing

Marilyn Nelson

 
The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows;
only their children feel the holy ghost
that makes them jerk and bobble and almost
destroys the pious atmosphere for those
whose reverence bows their backs as if in work.
The congregation sits, or stands to sing,
or chants the dusty creeds automaton.
Their voices drone like engines, on and on,
and they remain untouched by everything;
confession, praise, or likewise, giving thanks.
The organ that they saved years to afford
repeats the Sunday rhythms song by song,
slow lips recite the credo, smother yawns,
and ask forgiveness for being so bored.
I, too, am wavering on the edge of sleep,
and ask myself again why I have come
to probe the ruins of this dying cult.
I come bearing the cancer of my doubt
as superstitious suffering women come
to touch the magic hem of a saint's robe.
Yet this has served two centuries of men
as more than superstitious cant; they died
believing simply. Women, satisfied
that this was truth, were racked and burned with them
for empty words we moderns merely chant.
We sing a spiritual as the last song,
and we are moved by a peculiar grace
that settles a new aura on the place.
This simple melody, though sung all wrong,
captures exactly what I think is faith.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
That slaves should suffer in his agony!
That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy
nevertheless was by these slaves ignored
as they pitied the poor body of Christ!
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble,
that they believe most, who so much have lost.
To be a Christian one must bear a cross.
I think belief is given to the simple
as recompense for what they do not know.
I sit alone, tormented in my heart
by fighting angels, one group black, one white.
The victory is uncertain, but tonight
I'll lie awake again, and try to start
finding the black way back to what we've lost.
 
From For the Body, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1978 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Poems by This Author

Cachoeira by Marilyn Nelson
We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man
Daughters, 1900 by Marilyn Nelson
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,
Dusting by Marilyn Nelson
Thank you for these tiny
Little White Church by Marilyn Nelson
Us Free Will Baptists walked a thin tightwire
Mama's Promise by Marilyn Nelson
I have no answer to the blank inequity
Minor Miracle by Marilyn Nelson
Which reminds me of another knock-on-wood
The House on Moscow Street by Marilyn Nelson
It's the ragged source of memory,


Further Reading

Related Poems
Little White Church
by Marilyn Nelson
Outside the Church
by Annie Petrie-Sauter