A Fly in the Chancel
A Fly in the Chancel
A fly dive-bombed the preacher in mid-sermon. No matter how much he bobbed and weaved the fly maintained its orbit. I thought it was zeroed in on his mouth. Maybe he laced his breakfast tea with honey. Or was it halitosis? The pulpiteer really couldn't swat at it. It would have been bad form. An usher, seeing the distress, might act on an ill-advised impulse to help and totally disrupt the mood of worship. The preacher took the better part. He endured the swooping irritant.
William Golding wrote a book that has become a staple for high school English, "The Lord of the Flies." That title refers to the Old Testament name for the devil, Beelzebub. Flies gather around things noxious too human beings. Like corpses. And other detritus it would be indelicate to mention... but it is the reason you and I are loathe to eat food on which flies' dirty feet have landed.
Had the powers of darkness sent a buzzing emissary to this moment of worship? A fly in the chancel, indeed: the devil's handiwork!
Of course, the sanctuary windows were open. I chased a sparrow out of an open window during worship one fine spring day in 1957 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Was I violating the blessing of the Psalmist who sang of the temple of the Lord where "even the sparrows finds a home?"
I mean, let's not carried away with sentiments more worthy of James Herriot than King David.
For Sundays a year apart for twenty years I marveled at the swarm of flies that gathered directly beneath the chandelier of a Vermont church meetinghouse. As my mind wandered, as yours surely does too from time to time during the sermon, I wondered how many generations of flies I had witnessed. It was a marvel to me. Never once did they menace the pulpit. The preacher must not have fancied breakfast honey. Or he used Listerine. Then one Sunday a few years back they were gone. No, no sticky paper strips hung from the chandelier. Beelzebub's emissaries had departed. And I had nothing to distract me from full-minded attention to the sermon.
Unfortunately, however, those missing flies (or their cousins) have reappeared at another sanctuary, our little cabin on a hill overlooking the White Mountains. Visiting that place of respite from the busy world is virtually impossible in the fall in recent years. Cluster flies congregate between our windows and their closed shutters, thousands and thousands of them. If we light a fire in the Franklin stove or turn up the electric baseboard heating, the dormant flies, drowsy with the chill, shake off their lethargy and fill the room like a squadron of World War II Stukas. What was supposed to be a day enjoying the reds and yellows of turning maple leaves becomes an evening coping with Beelzebub's minions. So we don't go in the fall anymore.
On the Internet I just went looking for a painting used once thirty years ago for a communion Sunday bulletin cover. Praise be to God and the good offices of Google I found it by typing in the search phrase, "Painting: Prayer and Cat." Nine items down I came across exactly what I wanted. Up came in living color Nicholas Maes' "Old Woman Praying (Prayer Without End)." It pictures a woman of good age with hands folded and eyes closed as in offering a table grace before eating the bread and soup set before her. Lo and behold, the picture is presented on a website selling Sunday bulletin covers. See for yourself:http://www.arttoheartweb.com/communion_Nicolaes_Maes_Old_Woman_Praying.htm. The extensive commentary accompanying the picture is very spiritual and uplifting, most of it about the woman's state in life, her loneliness and the comfort of her faith. But for all the piety not a single word mentions the detail in that painting that immediately caught my eye long, long ago: a cat claws at the tablecloth as if to pull the woman's daily bread into a furry embrace.
I suspect Nicholas Maes had something more in mind in his painting than the faithfulness of an old soul. The cat is a reminder that even in worship the world is ever with us. There are flies beneath the sanctuary chandelier and around the preacher's head. Some enthusiasts there are who long for a worship experience in which they are carried away. The God who made us and put us on earth with the summons to make the most of our time here sends us reminders of that calling when we long for rapture. Flies, cats, sparrows, bats in the belfry, wasps in the tower, church mice in the organ: if they are the minions of Beelzebub, we dare not forget that, as in the Book of Job, even the devil must finally do the Lord's bidding.