Today I went to church for the first time in a very long time. The friend I am with is a devout Catholic, and I didn’t want to stay in bed while she went to church. In Knysna, St Boniface is right next to St George’s, so she went to the Catholic service and I attended the Anglican Eucharist.
St George’s is a very beautiful little church. Most of the Anglican churches in the Western Cape were designed by Sophy Gray, the wife of Bishop Robert Gray. Before researching this post, I knew little about her, so was surprised to discover that she was an influential, energetic and important woman, who played a role in the church far beyond that which was usually reserved for others of her gender at the time. Not only was she an architect and an artist, she also kept the church records. She was a very good horsewoman, wearing breeches under her riding dress, and went on many adventures with her husband, with whom she appears to have been an equal.
St George’s is a national monument, and its setting is rather wonderful:
As I walked in, the organist began playing the melody from JS Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, one of my favourite melodies and one that I requested at my wedding. (God, Fate, the Universe – call it what you will – appears to have a sense of humour.)
I liked the service. Despite being a dreadful heathen (I’m agnostic rather than an atheist), I love bells and smells, and I was pleased to note that the Eucharist, there were no guitars or tambourines, and no sitting either. Despite my long absence, I can still recite most of the liturgy by heart – a function, perhaps, of the years I spent in the children’s choir at St Michael’s. I warbled along through the hymns with the rest of the congregation, tut-tutted when an elderly man’s phone rang twice while we were praying, smiled at the naughty little boy who knocked his head on the pew, started crying, and was comforted by a little girl who brought him some TicTacs.
(And yes, I had to take a breath and brace myself for the Peace be with You, which involves eye contact and holding hands with strangers and always was the part that my siblings and I dread the most.)
The sermon wasn’t bad at all, and though I kept being distracted a la Eat Pray Love by thoughts of buying smoked salmon to go with my breakfast scrambled eggs, the priest – arm shaking with the distinctive palsy of Parkinson’s – made a good point about making room for our lives for the important things first. Of not being distracted. I managed to restrict myself to one tweet for the entire service, a record for me.
Communion was chaotic – this was the one part where my long absence told, because I muddled the wafer and the wine and insisted on getting wine first. I last regularly went to church when I lived in Sydney. There I joined the choir in an attempt to find an anchor to a life where I felt completely adrift. It didn’t last, and I moved back to South Africa, and my life fell apart. Now, I battle to remember things like wafers and wine. Yesterday evening I was telling my friend about the impact on my short term memory of all that anxiety and stress and all the tranquillisers I used to treat it.
To forget things, to lose your memory, is to lose control. It’s frightening and I will never be the same. I will never be the person I was. The only thing I will not forget is why I am like this today. I think back to my insistence on having the wine before the wafer, and how strange that must have seemed to the priest.
And so, every little thing reminds me of what I have lost. When we prayed, I asked for peace. I ask for the strength to own up to my mistakes and apologise to those I have wronged, and to let go of the anger I have at those who have wronged me.
I don’t know if I will get what I asked for.