The evening light lit the hallway as Leah passed the dark offices and leaned her shoulder into the nave door. With a slight pause and bow, she lowered her bucket of flowers to the floor in front of the altar. Returning from the kitchen a moment later with two flower vases and a watering can, Leah thought about the arrangements she was about to create. The late summer blossoms were a reminder that fall was on its way. The deep orange of the cone flowers and the violet red of the sedum hinted at falling leaves and darker days to come. She decided to start the arrangement with the much brighter helianthus, a yellow proclamation that the sun had not yet receded into hibernation. She breathed deeply as she chose and cut the stems. This task might be better suited to the kitchen, but Leah loved the feeling of being in such a large and empty space. There was something about this room that made it easier to breath. The tall vaulted ceilings, perhaps, or the way the walls muffled all sounds of the outside world. Not only that, but this room held the lingering presence of sacrament: drops of baptismal water, whispers of martial vows, the Eucharist—body and blood fully present yet fully other. It was not only the quiet but the touch of the sacred that Leah found here.
Pausing a moment to absorb the peace, Leah’s eyes followed the lines of the arched ceiling beams to their central point. As a child, she would often hang her head upside down off of a bed, chair, or pew and imagine what the world would be like if the ceiling were the floor. Daydreaming in church even after she was too old to upend herself mid-service, this ceiling had always been quite clearly a boat. The steeple was the rudder steering the bow between the cloud-shaped islands floating in the sea of the sky. The church as a boat was the world familiar, yet made new through inversion.
Even at a young age she had begun to understand that so much of experience is a matter of perspective and interpretation. It came to her now that all things might have a hidden name if only viewed from a different angle. Take ladybugs. In childhood they seemed like such cute, friendly insects, but now, as a gardener, she saw them as fierce warriors, protecting her flowers from the plant-destroying aphids. What else, she wondered, could be transformed by an inverted gaze or a new vantage point? What if she could train herself to think of the sting of hot peppers on her tongue not as pain, but delicious flavor? Maybe the cold of a winter’s day didn’t have to be discomfort, but could be a sharp clarity instead. It was the apostle Paul, after all, who claimed weakness as strength. It took more strength and courage than she had, she knew, to expose the vulnerability of need. Leah sat back on her heels to survey her work, pleased with how the sedum’s vibrant chartreuse foliage complemented the more subdued orange flowers. Color is a song of praise, she thought, just like the smoke of incense is prayer.
A rustling behind her interrupted her musings, and Leah turned to see a head of dark curls emerge from behind the opening door. “Oh, hey Peter,” she called, suppressing a note of surprise in her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“Ah, ha, I thought I’d find you here, Leah! I forgot to print off a copy of my sermon notes before I left yesterday, and I wanted to look over them once more before tomorrow morning. When I saw your car in the lot, I thought you must be working on the altar flowers.”
“Yes, here I am.” She watched the petals of the helianthus tremble slightly as she added another stem to her arrangement.
“Your Saturday night ritual,” he said as he moved up the aisle to perch his long frame on the altar rail, legs crossed and hands in his pockets. “It brings you peace.”
“Yes,” she replied, glancing up briefly. “I do love it.” She cocked her head as she studied the remaining flowers in her bucket. “So, first sermon as an official intern, hey?”
“First chance to say what really needs to be said. I’m stoked!”
She smiled. “Always looking to rile people up.”
“They need to be riled! The way of Jesus isn’t putting on some nice clothes and showing up on a Sunday morning! It’s a sacrifice, a renunciation. The people here,” he sighed, “they are too comfortable. Too happy with the status quo. It’s not really preaching if it doesn’t confront. Like the text for tomorrow says, it’s after everything’s been shaken that what remains is the kingdom that can’t be. Hey, what’s that look for?”
“Always so intense. You’re right of course, just don’t forget that there are some of us who are already shaken up and need a little comfort now and again.” She turned her back to place the arrangements and then glanced over her shoulder. His eyes flickered in the beams of blue streaming through the stained glass. “Well, I’m glad you’re excited. I know a year ago you expected to be anywhere but here by now. Life has a way of twisting and turning, huh? This place used to seem like a dead wasteland, but now you look around and see all the potential for life.”
“Yes, I do! So many things I never expected, Lee. I—”
“Yoo hoo!” a voice called as the nave door sprung open and another set of dancing colors bounded into the room. “There you are! Oh, hey LeeLee! You’re here too.”
“Hi, Juliette,” Leah said as she watched her friend’s broomstick skirt swish up the aisle.
Juliette bounced on her tiptoes to dart a quick peck onto Peter’s flushed cheek. “Those look great, Lee! You really have an eye for design you know. A true artist.”
Leah picked at the dirt under her fingernails. “Something like that, I suppose. Nothing like you and your paintings, though.”
“Pshaw. Always selling yourself short. Well, Pete, we’d better get going if we’re going to have time to eat and get out to Bergman’s field before the moon sets. Did you pack your telescope?”
“Yep, it’s in my trunk. OK, see you tomorrow then, Leah.”
“Good night, you two. Enjoy the night sky.”
Leah listened to the fading sound of Juliette’s carefree chatter and let out a slow breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Alone again in the quiet, she stepped back to survey her work one more time. It pleased her to create something beautiful, something that spoke truth without words. Tomorrow after the service she’d take the bouquets to Willow Woods Senior Home and spend some time with Mrs. Mason. She knew her friend would probably lose the memory of her visit shortly after she left, but the flowers would linger and brighten up her room for most of the week. A transitory beauty, these blooms, but precious for their brevity as much as their vitality it seemed.
A final deep breath ended in a sigh, and Leah gathered her supplies. Back in the kitchen she dumped the water into the sink, replaced the watering can, and wiped a few stray crumbs from the gleaming stainless steel countertop. With her bucket nearly empty, her load was much easier to manage on her way out. She braced for the darkness of the hallway, but found herself still able to see as she switched off the kitchen light. She headed into the offices to search out the source of the light and was unsurprised to see Peter’s office door open. Glancing around at the wall of books and paper strewn desk, the corner of her eyes lifted. She reached for the light switch, checked the lock, and gently pulled the door shut.
Finding her way down the hall by the light of the exit sign, Leah stepped out into the cool evening air. She paused to admire the view down the hill and across the empty field that opened out below the church parking lot. The darkening sky was another cathedral ceiling, the crickets and cicadas the singers of joy. Overhead the moon shone brightly, her brilliance obscuring all of the other lights of the night sky. The loneliness of the moon is her beauty, Leah thought. And the silence of letting go is love.