Eleven years ago, I was invited by the church in which I spent most of my childhood to write about my memories of growing up in this faith community. At the time, my reflections were not considered appropriate for inclusion in the proposed publication and so my words remained buried in the depths of my computer.
All these years later, I was reminded of this piece of writing when a detective from our local police department visited me in my office at the church. She is investigating a historic case of childhood sexual abuse.
Here is what I wrote in 2006:
It was the summer of 1962. I had just turned eight when my family and I moved from Duncan to Victoria. I was the Rector’s son, moving from a small town, to what seemed a large city, and a strange church. I was small and scared. So I became tough and wild.
Almost immediately, it was realized that I could not be contained with the other children in Sunday school. Some wise person decided I should become a server in the sanctuary and I was moved from children’s lessons to serving lessons. Being elevated to the adult world of vestry and sanctuary appealed to me. The meticulous choreography of serving settled my restless spirit. The company of older men made me feel mature and responsible as I shadowed the thurifer carrying my little silver “boat” of sweet smelling incense.
I was placed under the tutelage of the head server. He was probably two decades older than I, but treated me with respect and affection. He approached his position with the utmost care and seriousness. We all knew that his was important work and felt honoured to share it with him.
We had servers’ meetings at the Rectory with cheezies, chips and soft drinks. We held practices in the church concluding with “Compline” in the chapel. I still hear my father’s voice leading us singing “Before the ending of the day Creator of the world we pray.” There must have been many “Compline” services as the words I have not heard for thirty years ring now in my ears. As a reward for our labours, we had servers’ hikes that the head server planned and led with the careful attention to detail that characterized every part of his life.
By the time I was eleven, I had progressed through many of the positions a server could fulfill. I had learned the art of lighting the charcoal for the incense to produce the maximum smoke at just the right moment. I had carried the candles as an acolyte, and presented the bread and wine at the altar.
As a server I learned that religion was serious business. I came to understand that there was nothing trivial about faith. I remember the sacred moment before each service when we stood in our appointed places ready for the procession. The sound of the organ came muffled through the vestry door. We waited silently to play our appointed parts in the unfolding mystery in which we were privileged to share.
By the time I was twelve I discovered another mystery. There was a dimension to serving which never appeared in the sanctuary. The head server, and his closest assistant, liked to have sex with boys. I was one of those boys.
I do not know that it seemed to me terribly wrong at the time. On Sunday I was the devout little blond-haired server, moving smoothly through my paces in the adult world of religion. During the week, some of these same adults who taught the mysteries of faith, also introduced me to other mysteries about which I knew to keep silent. God and religion had no place in this other adult world. I learned to keep secrets. I learned to keep much of myself invisible.
But I also learned other lessons that have served me well in subsequent years.
I learned that the fact that bad things happened to me did not make me a bad person.
We are all wounded. At times our wounds will wound others. Human beings are deeply complex. The head server was a good, kind and gentle man. He cared deeply about the conduct of reverent worship. I believe he cared for me. He certainly respected my decision and honoured my choice when I made it clear I no longer wanted sexual contact.
Life involves pain. The important question is how I respond. I can be defined by my pain, or I can affirm that there is something deeper, more real, and more lasting than my pain. My experience in the conflicted land of serving exposed me to pain and shame. But, my experience in the sanctuary also introduced me to a reality greater than the shadow side of life.
I remember getting up in the middle of the night to kneel at the altar of repose on Maundy Thursday. I felt the terrible conflict of that dark and lonely night. I sensed the failure of Jesus’ friends. It was a time of suffering and despair. But years of liturgical practice had trained a deeper part of my being to know that there is something beyond suffering and despair. I knew that on Saturday evening, we would gather and light a large candle. I knew that this candle would be carried into the darkened church and that we would hear the words ring out, “The light of Christ.” And I knew that at that moment I would kneel and respond, “Thanks be to God.” The darkness was pushed back. Sadness, shame, and hurt were not the final word. There was a truth I could fall into with all of my chaos and confusion. That truth would hold me.
Life did not always have to make sense. Things did not always have to go perfectly. There was a greater reality. And so I could tell my own truth. I could acknowledge sad things, bad things, and wrong things that had happened. Those things no longer overwhelmed or defined me. I could practice the forgiveness I saw in Jesus who looked down from the cross upon his abusers and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness means letting go. Forgiveness means surrendering my need for the world to be put right. It means no longer needing to be vindicated. Forgiveness knows that only truth can set us free. This freedom was born in me in those confusing times as I began my transition to adulthood. I am thankful for those years and for the part serving played in my formation.
© Christopher Page
11 October 2006