Only Say the Word

By Sonny Marks

I knelt at the side of the altar, the chalice minister for the Sunday late afternoon service.

“The gifts of God for the people of God,” our priest said, words that were familiar to me. “Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

I stood to receive the bread and the wine. In our 600-seat, 128-year-old church; a man’s deep voice broke the silence. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” His words disturbed me. They are not in the liturgy. Nobody joined him in speaking the words; everyone proceeded to the communion rail, as usual. 

The next week, he uttered the same words again. The man was in his 60s, I supposed, and sat in the back half of the sanctuary with a female companion. I didn’t know either of them. A front-row regular looked back at the man sternly. I recognized the words from the Roman Catholic mass I grew-up with. 

But the man offended my sense of propriety. The order of the service – the pattern, the familiarity, the ritual – draws me back on Sundays, gives me comfort.

The Roman mass was boring to me as a teenage Catholic. I wanted something more upbeat, unpredictable, something more personal than a herd liturgy. I found it in a nondenominational, fundamentalist, charismatic church across town. I worshipped there during high school and college, then grew in a different direction. I moved to a new city for work and returned to my Catholic roots, although I was not attending Mass often. I met Louise, who attended the downtown Episcopal church in our city. 

I was vaguely familiar with the Episcopal Church. My father, a Jew, proposed it as a middle ground to my Catholic mother when they discussed marriage. That compromise didn’t happen – my grandparents would pay for a Catholic wedding only. My parents had hoped to send me to an Episcopal school in first grade, only I didn’t score well enough on the entrance exam and went to a Roman Catholic school instead.

The longer Louise and I dated, the more I went to her Episcopal church. It eventually became my church too. I have since become friends with fellow church members who, like me, grew up Roman. One became Episcopalian after a divorce. Another moved to Canada to pursue his career, where the Anglican Church there became a place of compromise with his first wife.

I don’t know the story of the man who sat near the back and added language to the liturgy. I was relieved when he stopped attending. Back to order. Then after a while, I found his words coming to me in the silence, in the same place in the service. 

I like neat and tidy, yet I recognize that my life is not. I’ve been shaped by different influences, some of which appear incongruous. My wife now makes the charoset for the seder for our extended family of both Jews and gentiles.

I can’t think of any Bible verses that characterize this part of my life. What comes to me are lines from an Indigo Girls song: “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line.”

At our Episcopal church, I now fill in the silence. I don’t say the words out loud, but I do say them: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you …” 

* * * *

Sonny Marks lives in Lake Charles, La. A former newspaper reporter, he practices law during the week and plays tennis on Saturday mornings. He can be reached at sonnymarks320@gmail.com.

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