The single scarlet candle burns brightly in the corner; an “Open” sign for wayward souls.
No one remains in the darkened sanctuary except this solitary visitor, returning for a few minutes of peace before addressing the tasks at hand.
Yet I am not alone, for Our Lord is present in the holy tabernacles – the one across the room and the other inside.
Calm, peacefulness, serenity – it’s a pleasure to spend a few quiet moments alone with the Lord.
Weeks ago, however, the sanctuary was bright and filled with parishioners. We stood for many long minutes, endearing drowsiness and sore backs as we heard the words of Our Lord’s passion. Could we stay awake, unlike his disciples slumbering in Gethsemane?
As the details of his passion unfolded, I became ashamed, for I know my faults, my sins. How could another man endure the barbs and lashes, the scourges and ridicule, the pain and death from crucifixion, just to wipe clean the sins from my soul?
“I know two things very clearly,” says John Newton (Albert Finney) in the film Amazing Grace. “I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
Newton had been the captain of a busy ship that profited from the slave trade. He sailed from Africa to the West Indies, delivering African men, women and children to markets in which they were sold like barrels of tea or six-packs of cold beer.
On filthy, disease-ridden wooden boats, these imprisoned souls endured iron shackles around their necks, wrists and ankles that kept them bent and immobile for 3-4 weeks straight, like so many Pringles in a can.
Upon completion of the voyage, after two-thirds had died and were discarded, the survivors were sold to sugar cane plantations. There they toiled under extreme conditions to produce enough “white gold” to sweeten a nobleman’s cup of tea.
The plight of these individuals, however, was not ignored by all. A new champion for their cause arose from within Parliament’s halls in William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a politician who struggled over his future of doing the work of God or the work of a political activist.
It was humbly suggested to him by other abolitionists that he could do both.
Wilberforce also preferred to talk to God alone in secret places, marveling God’s handiwork in the intricacies of a spider’s web or in the beauty of a meadowlark’s call. Yet when in Parliament, he quickly found his voice to speak against the evils of slavery.
He proclaimed, wrote, sang and yelled over the voices trying to shout him down, stating that “all men are created equal by God” and “the inhuman practices of the slave trade are abominable crimes against our fellow man.”
Wilberforce took counsel from his minister, John Newton, the former ship captain who recanted his sins and turned to a life serving God. Haunted by the lives of 20,000 slaves who once filled his vessels, Newton documented the horrors in public documents that were submitted to Parliament, thereby adding grist to Wilberforce’s mill to grind out public support and political allegiances.
It was Newton’s conversion that led him to write the lyrics to the song “Amazing Grace,” one of the most beloved Christian hymns.
No longer wiling to live the wretched life of a slave merchant, blinded by the gold earned through the merchandising of human souls, he turned to God’s word for answers. In the hour he first believed, the precious grace did appear. He had already been through many dangers, toils and snares. Still, he recognized that God’s grace had kept him safe so far and grace would lead him home.
My sanctuary is quiet, darkened at the end of the day. In the comfort of solitude, I kneel on the floor before the cross.
I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and what I have failed to do…
Further I fall, humbly, plaintively, stretching out across the floor, my arms and legs making a cross like the one upon which he suffered.
Yet my arms do not hang in pain. They stretch out in hope to receive his grace, his amazing, saving grace, to wipe my sins away with the blood from his sacred heart.
For Easter morn has come with new life for all, bright shining as the Son. The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures. And every day, though I may stumble and fall, I shall rise again, to learn from my mistakes, take strength in his suffering and devote my days to writing and singing God’s praises.
First published in the January 26, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio