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Mack Williams: Chapel vista

Mack Williams

At First Presbyterian Church of Danville, Virginia, where I’ve been a member since 1978, the Holy Week services are held in a little side chapel rather than the great sanctuary.

The chapel, being about one tenth the size of the regular sanctuary, does make for getting a person’s hopes up about waning church attendance, until remembering the “packed” attendance there is from “packing” together in a small space (just now “King Oscar” comes to mind).

As well as numbers seeming to be multiplied, the same goes for voices and other sounds in the little chapel. The floor is un-carpeted, which makes for a “live” sound, kind of like that sound in the 78 rpm recording of Gene Vincent’s 1956 “Bee Bop a Lula” (but not exactly).

Each day of Holy Week a different minister speaks, so the crowd (excuse me: congregation) always includes some of that minister’s parishioners in support of him, kind of like supporters of the home team who have traveled to an away game to show their support (I seem to have slipped back into that “crowd” frame of reference).

For the preachers at Danville’s First Presbyterian this Holy Week, there were a couple of Methodists, a Baptist, a Lutheran, and the chairman of Averette University’s Religion Department (don’t worry, this is not the lead-in to a joke; however, to no surprise, these Holy men’s (and a woman) presence there was organized in a most logical fashion by my minister, a Presbyterian.

And no, the religion professor was not like that infamous kind who starts off the semester for his students by throwing the Bible across the room, going over to where it landed, and stomping on it a few times!

Just now, this talk of throwing makes me think of how Jesus threw himself “under the bus” for each of us!

In the small chapel, there is one of those old, about an inch thick, brown hymnals in which all of the “oldies” (even older than “Bee Bop a Lula”) are included. These go by various names, and all seem to be slim, brown books, such as the “Cokesbury.”

I much prefer those old songs to what you might hear on a radio station featuring contemporary Christian rock. I mean, who wants to hear a contemporary Christian version of “The Pusher” (by necessity, the original “chorus” having to be deleted since there’s a commandment against it).

The organ in the little chapel is not like the big, “piped” one in the sanctuary, but it does have a substantial sound, but not that “chord organ” sound as in “Magic Carpet Ride”(1968), “96 Tears” (1966), “Good Lovin” (1966), etc.

Real palms were in a couple of vases on the altar; and where a couple of fronds were turning yellow and beginning to curl, I thought of how, as a child (and now), I was fascinated by having my own little “palm cross” at Easter, made of real palm leaf sections tied together (wish I had one now).

And then I remember that the palm leaves from the previous year are burned to make the ash used to make the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday. Recollection of this makes me feel that my keeping of a palm-leaf cross would be selfish, denying some people the future “signing” of the cross in ash upon their foreheads.

Just now, I remember that at one time back at Appalachian, the thought of becoming a Lutheran minister crossed my mind, but I was frightened out of it by the idea of having to write something every week. Oh well.

The altar and pulpit of the little chapel are covered with a cloth containing soft colors and various designs instead of the “seasonal” parapets used in the sanctuary. In this respect, the altar and pulpit of the little chapel seem less “military.”

The chapel’s windows are on the street side, natural light entering there. Their glass is that beaded, “milky” kind which I seem to remember on some of the old office doors of The Wallace Building (since I’m old, that’s what I call it). I think Sam Spade also had that kind of glass in his office door (and Nick Danger, Third Eye, for all of you other “Firesign Theatre” lovers out there).

On cloudy days, this beaded glass (through which the outside world cannot be discerned) gives the impression that there’s some sort of white building jammed right next to the little chapel, running its full length (think: Baltimore row houses). This gives the impression that when looking out of its windows on a cloudy day, the small chapel is (paraphrased): “A room without a view.”

In closing, there’s something I’ve seen in that little chapel’s beaded-glass windows. It may be due to some particular local geography, weather patterns, time of day, or “something else.”

On several occasions, just before the giving of the closing benediction (or during it) at one of those Holy Week services, the suddenly cloud-released sun gives the beaded glass a look of bright blue crystal, the imagined, confining building next door having tumbled away.

Like the previous “cloudy” view, the “blue” in the beaded glass is two-dimensional, its very presence proof to heart, mind, and soul of the three-dimensional “vista” beyond!

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