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0 Comments | Nov 08, 2009

The Miracle

steepleI was raised in a Baptist church in southern Maine, about which upbringing several things are worth noting to help set the context for the unusual narrative that follows. First, and rather important societally, if not directly, to this story, is to understand that being a Baptist in the north bears strikingly little resemblance to being one in the south. These differences are manifest on multiple levels, most notable being the relative scale and grandeur of houses of worship in different areas of the country. At the risk of over-generalizing, suffice it to say that in the north the Protestant churches are the small ones and the Roman Catholic churches are the large ones. In the southeast, say from Texas eastward, precisely the opposite is the case. In Houston, for example, Baptist churches seating in excess of five thousand are routinely spaced only a mile or two apart, and are as routinely filled to capacity every Sunday morning. Indeed, the largest Houston-area Baptist church resides in a former NBA basketball arena and seats twenty-two thousand. Conversely the church in which I grew up, the subject of this tale, counted themselves fortunate to seat fifty on a good day.

There are differences of nuance as well, which aren’t material to this story, but are nonetheless enriching. In the north, whereas there are numerous sorts of Protestants, e.g. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, etc, if you consider yourself a Baptist, then that is it—you are a Baptist. In the south, on the other hand, there are numerous flavors of this prolific subset alone (at least two hundred and fifty variations on the theme according to one internet source), the largest being the Southern Baptist Convention with more than sixteen million members and forty-two thousand churches. The south is a place where what sort of Baptist you are actually matters. If you ask a man to marry his daughter, he will ask you what sort of Baptist you are, and woe be upon you if you render the incorrect answer. As I say, these differences, while important societally, do not concern us for purposes of this story, aside from noting one critical belief that spans the entire Baptist spectrum irrespective of one’s particular hue. All Baptists believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the immutable unimpeachable word of God Almighty. This means believing in such things as the universe having been created in six twenty-four-hour days (the sun’s nonexistence for some of this interval notwithstanding), assorted individuals rising from the dead, and of course, as a general matter, the more or less routine occurrence of bona fide miracles. This last will come into play shortly.

I attended, more or less regularly until about age fifteen, the nearest Baptist church to my home, about a mile and a half away. It was located near the end of what well-to-do people refer to as a cul de sac, and what ordinary people call a dead-end street. There was nothing terribly notable about this church. It was of white clapboard construction and featured a typical New England steeply pitched single-gable roof perched atop which was an altogether ordinary steeple with a single bell. In the earliest years of my recollection, this bell was operated manually by means of a long heavy cord which hung down through the ceiling near the rear of the sanctuary, close to the main entrance. I recall this arrangement with some clarity, as one of the few pleasant memories I have of the entire church-going experience was the weekly opportunity to be the child who got to pull on the cord and ring the bell, generally for a good deal longer than was actually required to summon the faithful to the eleven-o’clock service (particularly seeing as how most of the attendees were there already, having arrived at nine-thirty for the Sunday School classes which invariably precede eleven o’clock service at all Baptist churches regardless of specific denomination or location). Sometime around my ninth or tenth birthday, as part of a more wide-ranging upgrade of the church’s facilities, the manual bell cord was replaced with a motorized arrangement which necessitated the simple flipping of a switch on the wall by one of the deacons. The children, bereft of one of the few fun things to do in church, were heart-broken.

I have spoken elsewhere of the three individuals with whom I perpetrated much of the mischief of my errant youth. As it happened, two of them were brothers and they had the good or bad fortune, depending on viewpoint, to live in a small Cape Cod style house exactly across the street from our church. The only architectural aspect of their home relevant to this tale is the fact that it was rather close to the street, and was, like the church itself, of a traditional New England construction, meaning wooden frame construction, pine clapboard siding, and plenty of windows. This matters only insofar as these materials afford but the most basic level of sound insulation from outside sources, a fact that will come into play straightaway. Without having ever actually measured it, I would estimate that the approximate distance from the bell to the western wall of my friends’ house was something on the order of fifty yards, that being my best guess at the combined length of one church parking lot, one standard rural two-lane street width, and one modest front lawn. A final but important fact is that the family was Roman Catholic, a detail I mention only to make clear that the affairs of the Baptist church across the street mattered to them not a whit, the somewhat busy flurry of Sunday morning traffic notwithstanding.

There was however one point of each week during which the operations of this household and that of the church came into rather sharp congruence, an occurrence which took place without fail and precisely at ten fifty-five each Sunday morning, viz the ringing of the bell. As it happened, my friends’ family, by virtue of their Catholicism, about which they were less than observant, had rather more flexibility in attending service than that generally afforded to Protestants. For those who aren’t familiar with this aspect of Roman Catholicism, somewhere far back in antiquity, no doubt ensconced deep within some Renaissance-era pontifical encyclical, it was decreed that Catholic masses could be held as frequently or infrequently as local diocesan officials deemed it appropriate. In most municipalities this turned out to mean that multiple masses were offered each week, some at traditional Sunday morning times, others later on Saturday or Sunday evenings, or even on weekdays. As the general requirement was simply for weekly attendance at one or another (again unlike Baptists, who are exhorted to attend not only the Sunday morning service, but Sunday evenings and, typically, a Wednesday evening prayer meeting as well), most Catholics, in my experience at least, tend to eschew the Sunday morning option in lieu of either Saturday night or some other more opportune time, in particular one that does not require getting up early on Sundays. Baptists, on the other hand, either through a singular lack of flexibility or unwillingness to adopt such a laissez faire attitude, mandate that the principal service of each week start promptly at eleven a.m. more or less worldwide. And so we begin, after much digression and back-story, to get to the root of the incipient conflict.

Having been quite close with this family since pre-school, I had heard on multiple occasions a wide array of vituperative discourse on the subject of that goddamn bell and why in the Christ did it have to ring when they were trying to get some sleep or have their breakfast or whatever other element of their Sunday morning ritual was being disturbed by the incessant din, the linguistic irony of these usually florid invectives largely lost amid the morning’s cacophony.

For several years I heard about this unending situation second-hand until one weekend I had occasion to spend a Saturday night at their house. As it happened, the reason for my overnight visit must have involved some rather late-night activity on Saturday, because when eleven came the following morning we were all still well and truly asleep or only just emerging from it. As luck would have it, and as if the general proximity of the house to the church weren’t sufficient to engender enough outrage, the upstairs bedroom where I was sleeping happened to be on the side of the house overlooking the church parking lot, meaning that I did not even enjoy the benefit of the house and its contents to attenuate the sound of the bell when arrived the accursed hour. There was but a single pane of glass between myself and that hideous iron demon.

Yet another detail is required at this juncture, the better to elucidate an already tenuous situation. This first overnight stay would have been around my tenth year, which is to say sometime after the aforementioned church renovations that had included the replacement of the rope-operated bell with the mechanized one. This matters, because previous to the renovation the duration of ringing had been limited by the energy level of the youths selected to pull upon the heavy rope, an exercise that required no little effort, I can assure you from personal experience. And while no one will dispute the energy level of adolescent boys, that energy tends to spike quickly and as quickly diminish, either through initial over-exertion, boredom or some combination thereof. Long and short of it, the manually operated bell wasn’t typically rung for all that long, typically thirty to forty-five seconds. On the other hand, the installation of the motorized system eliminated this constraint and allowed the wretched thing to go on causing a raucous for all of four or five minutes before someone thought to turn it off, which was frequently delayed further by the generally excellent sound insulating qualities of the church roof itself, which is to say that the bell could ring endlessly without anyone inside actually paying it any mind.

I have alluded in prior essays to the generally high level of energy and preparation my associates and I put into our operations once some unacceptable situation or insurmountable challenge came to our attention. The same is true here, and with a healthy dose of creativity to boot. While my friends’ parents had more or less come to accept the weekly Sunday morning situation, my friends could not so easily do so, this differing level of agitation due perhaps to the general tendency of people to rise earlier as they age, and so to be progressively less offended by anything that interferes with late-morning sleep. We thus took it upon ourselves to assuage the situation, accepting from the outset that whatever solution we came up with was not likely to be without its due share of risk and logistical endeavor.

Having ruled out (though not without some discussion) the downright criminal, e.g. burning down the church, we were forced to seek alternatives that would render the bell inoperative without causing peripheral damage. As the only member of this ensemble who had actually been inside the building, I was the sole source of inside information. And so it was my sad duty to inform my colleagues of the switch from rope-drawn to automated bell operation, thus eliminating other reasonably practical options such as cutting the bell rope (we had not at all ruled out breaking and entering at this point).1 As none of us had at this time any expertise in electricity that would allow modification of the wall switch, we were left with the unenviable alternative of conducting our operation from atop the roof of the building. What we didn’t realize was that, by focusing from the outset on stopping the bell’s physical movement, we had blinded ourselves, for the moment at least, (as so many institutions and individuals do every day) to truly out-of-the-box solutions.

Not having the benefit of any pre-operation reconnaissance, we did not know the details of the bell’s suspension in the steeple beyond what could be discerned from the ground, i.e. very little. For example, could we ascend the roof and simply snip a rope or cable? Unclear. Perhaps the bell was gear operated and could somehow be jammed. Who knew? The only thing we did know and which could be gleaned from a distance was that sound was created through the usual expedient, viz swinging the bell itself so as to cause an impact against its inner surface by a centrally suspended clapper. And that’s when it came to us. “Suppose…,” one of us said (not clear who deserves the credit at this late date), “Suppose we could not only render the bell noiseless, but could do so without stopping its movement. Suppose from the ground it looked as though the bell was moving in an entirely normal manner, and yet no sound emanated from it.” He had our undivided attention, in response to which he reached into a nearby drawer where was stored winter clothing, extracting and holding before our amazed eyes a single black woolen mitten. Could it really be so simple?

Well the rest of the story scarcely needs telling. Still I will do so, if only to elucidate the details of what remained a not inconsequential logistical undertaking, and to expound as well on the profound impact that the outcome had on certain personages. We were of course not so brazen in this endeavor as to attempt a daylight operation, and since effecting our chosen solution meant ascending to the church roof, we were reduced to planning for how to do so, with equal measures of efficacy and safety (though it will be recalled that in past operations of this sort the latter was frequently compromised in zealous pursuit of the former), in the darkness. Besides which, the church parking lot was equipped with a pair of street lights that were lit at all hours from dusk to dawn2. When the big night came, I had arranged to sleep over again, so as not to miss participation in this extraordinary undertaking. Fortuitously, my friends’ father had a suitably large aluminum extension ladder which was both light and of suitable length to reach well above the eave of the church roof, which edge descended to within perhaps twelve feet of the ground. We had selected Saturday night to effect the operation (in order to witness the result as soon thereafter as possible), prior to which we, that afternoon, removed the ladder from the garage and laid it alongside the outer wall, negating the need to open the garage door after midnight, which noise would doubtless have alerted the parents, and possibly neighbors, to our efforts (though we suspected they might well have supported us). Rather than simply move the ladder from inside the garage, without which explanation some suspicion might have arisen, we conjured, during the afternoon, to get a Frisbee stuck in a tree, thus creating a plausible excuse for removing the ladder. It then became a simple matter of childhood neglect to place it, for the time being, alongside the garage and then fail to return it before retiring for the evening. Alarms were set, Heart rates ran high. Little sleep ensued before the chosen hour.

I had been unanimously selected as the principal operative on the church roof, only one being required, and I, by far, the smallest and most nimble of the three. Once the household was asleep, we snuck down the stairs and out the back door to discover a nearly full moon, which presence we could not agree on whether to regard as a good or ill omen. It certainly provided more light for the operation, but that as well had its pluses (greater visibility for the work) and minuses (greater visibility onto the roof from afar). We quietly secured the ladder and made our way, with all the stealth we could muster, across the yard, the parking lot, and to what appeared a suitable staging area behind the church. Choosing this spot was also not without some debate. While we readily agreed to work from behind the church rather than on the parking lot side, it wasn’t entirely clear whether to place the ladder near the front of the church, which while closest to the steeple was also most easily observed, as opposed to farther down the church wall, to a more secluded spot which would then require navigating a greater length of the steeply shingled church roof. In the event, we opted for greater seclusion, seeing as how I was but one of three votes and as well the one who would be maneuvering on the roof proper.

There remained additional variables over which we had no control or knowledge until it came time to actually apply the mitten. It was, for example, unclear from a distance precisely what the girth of the clapper might be or the degree of its congruence with the maximum (fully stretched) diameter of the mitten. The mitten might be too small and not fit over the clapper. Or it could be overly large and slide too easily off. Our only insurance against this latter scenario was to bring along a couple of the heaviest rubber bands we could locate. If the mitten was too small, I would be forced to improvise on the spot, in anticipation of which I had come equipped with an assortment of small pocket tools.

The actual operation required less than three minutes, though it seemed longer. Navigating along the roof did not prove problematic, as I made a beeline from the top of the ladder straight upward to the ridge of the roof, proceeding then down the keel until I reached the steeple some fifty feet away. Luck was also with us regarding the height of the steeple opening through which one accessed the bell. It had come up in our planning discussion that one possibility might be an inability to reach the bell clapper once standing astride the top of the roof. Had this been the case, some additional climbing would have ensued, at more than a little hazard to myself. The bell was easily reachable however. In addition, also to our great benefit, though of course utterly imperceptible from the ground, the diameter of the clapper not only allowed for a snug and secure fit by the mitten, but its surface was also more abrasive than we had expected, resulting in some issue getting the mitten slid on, but a most secure fit once it was in place, particularly as I elected to apply the rubber bands as well to help hold it in place—one never knew. Worth noting here as a small example of our attention to detail, we had taken pains to select a black mitten, and I made sure to fold the upper portion of the mitten down over the rubber bands, so as to create a suitable degree of camouflage for the entire affair when viewed from the ground. Once the arrangement was in place, I performed one final operational check by swinging the clapper lightly against the side of the bell. As expected, no sound at all emerged. Within seconds, I was back down the ladder, and we were, like phantoms, back across the parking lot and upstairs in our bedrooms, trying with complete futility to sleep while imagining what the morning would bring. Yet sleep we did—somehow.

We awakened that glorious Sunday morning to the chirp of birds, and the smell of eggs, pancakes and bacon wafting up from the kitchen. Panicked looks at the clock on the nightstand. Surely we hadn’t missed it. But no—it was just past ten. The throngs—such as they were—were still safely ensconced in their Bible lessons, songs, and the other rituals of Sunday School, still nearly an hour away from the moment of destiny. The three of us, pajama-clad, peered intently out the bedroom window on the church side. To our delight, there was nothing to be seen at all. The bell, nestled in the shadow of the steeple, revealed nothing of its modification.

My friends’ parents could not fail to notice a distinct ebullience to our morning demeanor at the breakfast table. Normally lethargic, half-awake pre-teens had been inexplicably transformed this day into animated, practically buoyant adolescents, though we did our best to keep our excitement subdued so as not to reveal any potential complicity in the events about to transpire. All eyes were on the kitchen clock though—ten thirty…ten forty-five…tension as thick as the syrup on our pancakes. At ten fifty we excused ourselves from the table and without waiting for acknowledgement raced up the stairs to watch adolescent history unfold. And then, ten fifty-five on the dot, with our three anxious faces pressed against the upstairs bedroom glass, the bell began to move precisely as it had for years previous. And what emerged from that heretofore accursed casting was nothing less than a miracle, which is to say absolute silence.

We could scarcely believe our eyes or ears. The bell rocked back and forth in the normal manner of bells throughout the world, perhaps seven or eight cycles, but not a whisper emerged. After perhaps thirty seconds of this astonishing behavior the motion stopped briefly, as if someone inside were testing the operation of the wall switch. Then again it began to rock, and still no sound emerged. As we were debating the nature of the conversations taking place inside, the inevitable occurred and two of the deacons burst through the front door into the parking lot where they turned and gazed upward at the steeple. We could of course not hear their discussion, though we could easily imagine it. There was a good deal of gesturing and pointing and staring at one another with what we presumed to be incredulity. As the bell continued rocking to no effect and the animated conversation continued in the parking lot, a slow trickle of additional parishioners emerged through the door until eventually there were in excess of twenty standing in a group, all behaving in more or less the same manner as the original two, that is to say, much gesturing, exclaiming, pointing, and even a bit of covering of mouths with hands, presumably in acknowledgement of the astonishing phenomenon they were collectively witnessing. And what made this entire affair all the more magical is that, with the bell clapper some forty feet above their heads, there was no conceivable way in which they could actually see any of the details of our modification of the previous evening.

With a significant percentage of the congregation now outside in the parking lot gazing upward in amazement, the eleven o’clock service was by now delayed, though whatever topic the minister had selected for that morning’s homily surely paled in comparison to the import of this new manifestation. It was by now perhaps five after eleven and it occurred to one of us to glance downstairs to discern what if any reaction had arisen from the parents. We had heard nothing since adjourning to the bedroom. Sure enough, they both were gazing out the living room window, wondering to each other at the crowd in the parking lot and, we noted with some trepidation, the occasional glance over their shoulders and upstairs. After another few moments of collective wonderment, the crowd gradually dispersed back inside for what must certainly have been an abbreviated and much distracted service. The bell was turned off and the three of us spent the next few moments congratulating each other, high-fiving, and generally celebrating the absolute success of our endeavor.

My friends’ parents never, to my knowledge, mentioned that morning, or the unexpected but welcome diminution of noise on subsequent Sunday mornings, which continued for many months thereafter. Oddly, it did not seem to have occurred to anyone in the church to ascend to the steeple to examine what might be the cause of the problem. Indeed it was only many months later, when the ravages of a Maine winter had had their way with the mitten, that the apparatus slipped from the clapper and rendered the bell functional again. Whether anyone in the congregation noticed the torn and rotted mitten that lay in their parking lot that morning, or how soon thereafter it occurred to someone to try turning on the bell again, I cannot say. Suffice it to say that every member of that congregation will, to this day, swear that they personally witnessed at least one bona fide miracle in their otherwise ordinary lives.

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