A church visit taught him that just as light shines through windows, God shines and works through us.
Posted in , Feb 20, 2020
I didn’t go to Grace Church in Manhattan with angels on my mind. I was there to talk about prayer, leading a class before worship. It was only later that I caught sight of the stained-glass window in the back of the nave, the angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder, seeming to fly right out of the frame.
Grace Episcopal is a historic spot; the current church was erected in 1846 on the edge of Greenwich Village. I had visited it years ago when my wife, Carol Wallace, was doing research for her book, To Marry an English Lord, about the American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy at the turn of the last century, a book that became the inspiration for the popular TV show "Downton Abbey."
Many of those prominent New York families, their mansions lining Fifth Avenue, made Grace their parish. There, the robber barons gave their daughters away in grand weddings. They paid a pretty penny to make the church look worthy of their social ambitions, filling it with beautiful art, including that window of Jacob’s ladder, and memorials to some of society’s (mostly now forgotten) mavens.
I can’t remember exactly what I said during the class—the temptation in quoting myself is to sound more polished than I am—but the crux of our discussion was how to pray “without ceasing” in a world of rattling cell phones and endless distractions. “I know sometimes when I pray I don’t feel worthy of God’s attention,” I said, “but God always hears us. Of that we can be sure.”
After the class, I joined the congregation for a service of prayer, song, communion and praise. I was floating on that joy that comes when you feel as if you have—finally—given back to God just a little of what God has given to you. At the end of the service, I picked up a church brochure and walked around to see the highlights. And there I stood in front of Jacob and the angels.
One reason stained glass is such a popular feature in churches is that it offers a perfect metaphor for how God works through us. Most art is best appreciated when the light shines on it, bringing out the textures and colors of the medium. With stained glass, the light going through the window allows us to see the artwork in all its glory. Those pieces of colored glass are transformed, pierced by sunlight, the same way God lights us up.
Was there ever a figure who needed God’s light more than Jacob, especially when he saw those angels? He’d just done something reprehensible, at his mother’s urging no less. Disguised as his twin brother Esau, he finagled a blessing out of his father, stealing Esau’s birthright and inheritance. It was a flagrant lie, and when Esau learned of it he was ready to kill his brother. Jacob fled for his life.
At night on his journey, he took a rock for a pillow and fell into a deep sleep. He might have felt abandoned by God, but God did not abandon him. On the contrary, while Jacob slept, God showed him a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels—God’s very messengers— going up and down it in a holy circuit of communication. “I will not leave you,” God promised.
When Jacob woke up, he was terrified. I wonder sometimes whether it was because of what he had seen in the dream or the realization of what he had done to his brother, a cosmic understanding of his guilt. At any rate, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it,” a verse I wish I had emphasized in my class. God is present in all places, even in our desperate flights, when all we can find is a rock for a pillow to sleep on.
As I stepped back from Jacob’s angels, I noticed a plaque on the wall beneath the window, a memorial for a parishioner named Edith Corse Evans. According to my brochure, Edith was 36 years old when she died on April 15, 1912. A New York socialite, she had made a trip to England—like a character out of "Downton Abbey"—then visited Paris for a shopping spree. To get back home she booked herself a first-class cabin on an ocean liner making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The name of the ship? The "Titanic."
The newly christened cruise ship, as we all know, hit an iceberg on its crossing, and its 2,200-some passengers scrambled to get to safety on a craft that had only enough lifeboats to accommodate about half of them. “Women and children first,” came the command. Edith stood with others on the deck of the sinking ship. “You go first,” she told a friend. “You have children.” Edith died along with 1,516 others, her body never recovered. Her life was short, but it defined itself in one heroic act. Surely God was present even then, and Edith Corse Evans seemed to know it and find strength in that fact.
I knew that Jacob did make it back to claim his birthright and was indeed forgiven and embraced by his brother Esau. God had stood by Jacob, as promised. Just as he stood by Edith, and just as he stands by me, with nothing but a ladder of angels between us.
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