When I was a teenager, I was sent to Episcopal church camp. It wasn’t my choice, really. My grandmother and the church I attended decided it would be good for me. Otherwise, I would just keep working at my summer job: scooping ice cream for laughing townsfolk and for vacationers thrilled with being on the coast of Maine.
Doing anything as a child in Maine was very understated. I remember reading accounts of how children from other states would go to exotic places for vacation and do inscrutable things, like study rocketry or cheerleading. Were I to be sent on “vacation,” I would be driven a few minutes away from my home and dropped at the dock belonging to my great-aunt to be shuttled out to her summer island.
Summer church camp demanded a little more effort, but not much. It was located in a town a couple towns north from where I lived. The drive was no more than forty-five minutes, most of which was spent on the winding road that lead around the lake on which the camp sat.
For the most part, the camp was what you would expect. There were canoes and archery targets; long, wooden tables and benches for eating; and — this was Maine and Episcopalian, after all — activities to teach the youth of Maine about their lives to come: political debates, social activism, literary discussions.
And there was chapel. Every morning and evening, with an occasional communion at noon. The priest, young and ebullient, wore around his neck large wooden beads that ended in a cross. Most of the day, he smiled and ran about, something of a human rabbit in a span of tall grass.
But in the chapel his mood calmed, and he led us in our paces with solemnity and respect for his office.
One summer, one morning, I decided to get up when I woke up, well before everyone else, and I went to sit in the chapel. It was deliciously empty, and the early morning mist on the lake was hypnotizing.
The longer that I sat there, the longer my relationship with the church became clear.
I was raised in a very active family. At church, my brothers served as acolytes; my mother, grandmother, and I sang in the choir. We never missed a service, or an opportunity to serve, even on holy days. I assisted my grandmother when she ran the events at the church: the summer auction, the Christmas pageant, the spring garden clean-up.
To me, church was nothing short of a job. Not that that was my grandmother’s only job of running things: she was the town’s secretary, tax collector, and treasurer; she ran the Saturday night suppers in our village’s town hall; and if anyone needed anything organized, she would be the one to be called on.
And I was always her trusty assistant.
But there was town life, and there was church, and to my family, there wasn’t much difference. It was all about being involved and about doing something. At all times.
But here I was, for the first time in my life, sitting still in an empty church. No singing. No praying. No sermons. Just God. Just quiet.
And in those moments, my life changed.
My heart and mind became filled with my feeling and thoughts about the church. I felt keenly how little I had ever respected priests up in the pulpit. As a mystic, my experience of God was of love and of being treasured and respected. But I never heard about this God in a sermon. Instead, I had spent my life listening to God being described as something short of a boogeyman, as one who was always watching, always criticizing, always condemning. I had never seen a priest throw up his arms in joy, and ask us, with tears in our eyes, how happy were we to be Christians and a part of God’s joyous kingdom.
In the communion service, the Book of Common Prayer has a prayer in it, a prayer to be said right before receiving communion, called the Prayer of Humble Access. It goes:
We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
As a child growing up in the church, this prayer had always bothered me, but not for the reasons you might imagine. It was the phrase, “not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table,” that gnawed at my imagination.
I kept thinking, rats can go under a table and eat crumbs. If rats can do this, why can’t we? Are we really that much lower than rats to God? Accordingly, and perhaps somewhat predictably, I used to call this prayer, The Rat Prayer.
As a child, I continually tried to talk with people about this feeling of mine. And I was no less than horrified by the responses I received. Some people, including my grandmother, didn’t really recognize the prayer as such. And this was a prayer that we said at least once a week.
Priests responded with a pat on my head, a shrug of a shoulder, sometimes a mumble about the mysteries of God, and a quick turn on the heels giving a broad view of a black back scurrying away.
In my culture, discussing books or movies, or the activities of our neighbors that they had meant to keep secret, was abundant and encouraged.
Talking about God just didn’t happen.
But as I sat in that chapel by the lake in the mornings before the clang of the bell called us to breakfast, the screams of children jumping in the lake before the sun had warmed the water began, or the raucous tramp of the boys fell out of their path to the camp’s center, for the first time in my life, I could hear God clearly. Not in a vision, but in the everyday reality that surrounded me.
I could feel the true communion between God and me that was only vaguely represented by the church service.
I could breathe in the awe and reverence that filled in a church even when we weren’t there.
And I could understand that the Prayer of Humble Access was not about rats at all or who got to eat the crumbs, but about our giving up our right to assert ourselves, and to just be willing to listen.