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.
Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of over eight books of poetry, as well as many collections of verse for children and young adults. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2013 to 2018.
Date Published: 1978-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/churchgoing