The Discovery of Solitude

A SWEET APPALACHIAN BREEZE sweeps the scent of green apples up the hillside as dandelions glitter and bright wildflowers dance in the grass. It is the May-time of 1947 and the sun wanders down into the prim little town tucked into a Blue Ridge mountain world of waterfalls, crystalline lakes and craggy peaks. The arched wooden door and amber glass windows mark the tidy short-steepled Methodist church, nestling on the side of the hill. The bulletin board on the sloping church lawn announces “Sunday Service – 11 AM. Sunday Night Prayer Service – 7 PM. Rev. C. Moody Smith. Pastor.“

Inside the white clapboard structure, I am a happy five-year old squirming my way through the hidden passageways of a world that I will soon lose. Invisible, I crawl beneath a long brown pew into a labyrinth of other massive benches that become a forest of fallen logs. Each bench is cushioned and enclosed on both ends like a huge cradle. As I crawl my way up, down, through and under the benches endless forest trails reveal themselves.

I work my way back through the fallen trees to the outer edge of the realm. Climbing up from the floor of the forest I stand on the seat of the back pew, its tall wooden backrest focusing attention on the front of the sanctuary. I am a king surveying my magic kingdom.

Another barefoot journey across the velvety moss of the forest floor brings me upfront to higher ground. The carpeted aisle flows like a deep red river down here to the front of the wooden sanctuary. The stream of burgundy flows on beyond the cushioned kneeling pads past the fence-like railing which separates the log forest from the high clearing. There a tall pair of heavily upholstered chairs face out onto the large open space like twin lighthouses anchored solidly on a hill facing the Ocean.

On the left of this elevated area, I reach to touch the smooth piano keys and delight as round tones fill the air before vanishing into a realm turned golden by sunlight through the stained glass.

A raised altar in the center is adorned with a richly textured altar cloth on which polished metal objects glow softly. The ancient book lays open displaying black and red text and to the side a wall plaque lists hymn numbers. In the middle of the whole elevated altar area, a mighty wooden pulpit rises like a stone castle before a swirling sea.

Faint echoes of a distant barking dog drift in with the lazy warm afternoon air. From the minister’s study comes a murmur of quiet talk and the clatter of a typewriter finishing the Sunday Order of Service. Then the pure silence returns again to this hidden forest. I nest in deep velvet beneath the high canopy of this hidden forest. It is an empty space, full of quietness. Except for the few minister’s children who discover this quiet playground in an empty church sanctuary, this silent domain is hardly known.

On Sundays, the mid-week calm quickly vanishes into a colossal mountain thunderstorm blowing in with blustering winds and sheets of rain from every direction. Squirmy kids in starched Sunday clothes, suited men and ladies in large hats swarm about the place like flocks of chattering birds.

Our voices fill the realm with the mighty hymn “The Church is One Foundation”, making this sturdy building feel even safer. During the moments for “quiet prayer and meditation”, the “storm” subsides. And at communion there is a hush as people walk forward and kneel on the long thick altar cushions, elbows resting on long wooden railings.

My father, calm in flowing black robes moves quietly from one person to the next whispering “this is the body of Christ, this is the blood of Jesus” as he offers a golden plate with square bread cubes and a silver tray holding the delicate thimble sized glasses of grape juice he carefully fills before the service.

During these quiet moments, I am sometimes surprised to open my eyes and find myself in a room full of people. But when the congregation is gone, the spacious emptiness returns.

My life is dawning in a quiet velvet garden. But soon, the silence will be lost, leaving only a trace waiting to be re-discovered.

 © RCS, The Solitude Project, May 2009