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I SHIELD THE JOYOUS O
It all began on a Friday evening. I mean "began" in the old storytelling sense, for oftener than not what we call beginnings are fulfillments of things set in motion a long time ago.
It was the Friday evening before the first Sunday in Advent, that season of spiritual expectation in the Church calendar: a clear, frosty evening at the end of November, with a bite to it. Winter in the Great Smokies would shortly be upon us, the winter that would see us into the next century and the new millennium. Other things were on their way to us as well, things we neither anticipated nor, in some cases, could even imagine. This is the story of how we met them and were changed by them.
My husband and I had eaten an early supper together, some of his chili, perfected during his extended bachelor years, and then he was off to the school again. I was rinsing our dishes under the tap, broodingbut with a fair amount of equanimity by this timeover the fact that he had neglected to kiss me again. I heard his car start, but it didn't go anywhere, and then there he was, back in the kitchen, his face already ruddy from the cold.
"Stubborn girl. You were supposed to lock the door behind me."
"What did you forget?" To kiss you, I was hoping he would say.
"Time for my wool cap. 'While the earth remaineth, summer and winter shall not cease,' and the bald head shall cry anew for its covering." Adrian liked to improvise on scripture. "Now where did I"
"All your hats and gloves are in the box in the hall closet. Labeled 'Winter.'"
"The things you do for me, Margaret."
"I did it for myself, too. My winter things are in there along with yours."
During the minute or so that it took him to dash down the hall, locate his old Navy watch cap, and return to the kitchen in the act of pulling it snugly down to his eyebrows, I was granted a little blip of respite. Things had not been well between us since last summer, but during this momentary spot of light, I entered a different kind of time. Significant memories pressed close with the intensity felt when living them, and recalled to me how much I had wanted this life with this man and how equally much I had feared it would never come to pass. And yet here we were in it, "for better for worse." In the wedding service the four words exist as a unit, unseparated by even so much as a comma. Had I expected to live only in the better side of the phrase? Into this wider perspective hope was allowed room, and something of it must have communicated to Adrian, because he now remembered what he had forgotten his first time out the door.
"Well," he said, touching his lips to mine and actually looking at me as if I was there with him, "hold the fort, as your father used to say. And please lock up this time."
"My father and I never locked the rectory back in Romulus. I don't think the vestry ever bothered to give him a key."
"Those were more trusting times, before people started blasting each other to smithereens over parking places. And your father's rectory wasn't so near the bus station that any fruitcake on foot could be at your door in five minutes."
"No, but once in Romulus I came back from church and found a woman upstairs in my bedroom closet, going through the pockets of my clothes."
"You never told me this." He looked intrigued. His hands stayed on my shoulders. "What was she doing in your closet?"
"She said she was looking for cigarette butts."
"Was she a parishioner?"
"No, she'd just showed up at church. But she never came back after that."
"Well, I don't wonder." His eyes rolled upward and I knew he was picturing the scene. Then he laughed, a typical Adrian-laugh. The surprised laugh of a reserved man ambushed by the gift of ludicrousness. Making me wish I had ten more such anecdotes stashed away to keep him standing there holding onto me and laughing. But then it was over and I could tell from his face he was already out at the school. "I'm not going to carry over my flannel pajamas yet," he said, releasing me. "That would be capitulating to winter too soon."
He'd taken to spending most weekends out at Fair Haven School, where he was chaplainand now acting headmaster, since the sudden death of Dr. Sandlin late last spring. All faculty who lived off campus took turns spending nights at the school, along with the resident staff. A founding principle of Dr. Sandlin's had been the importance of consistent family routines for these seventy-five disaffected teenagers whose parents preferred to maintain them long distance via their checkbooks. Some of the students came from backgrounds so unfamilial that even meals in common were foreign to them. "You have to force them to do things with others," Adrian was always saying.
As I passed the hall closet on the way to my study, to finish my sermon for Gus and Charles's wedding tomorrow, I sniffed the lingering cedar odor from the briefly opened box in which our all-cotton clerical shirts from Wippell's in England crossed the Atlantic together, and where our winter things now snuggled side by side even if we no longer did, and I was mystified anew by this whole thing we humans do when we take it into our heads to love one particular person.
It would be the first marriage for Gus (Augusta) Eubanks, a local architect, and the second for Charles Tye, the medical director of our local health clinic, whose wife had left him and their daughter three years before. We'd had the wedding rehearsal this afternoon, precocious twelve-year-old Jennifer Tye strutting about like a proud mother hen. Jennifer was convinced that her efforts had brought about this match, and to a large extent she was right. Gus and Charles were both extremely busy people who tended to neglect their personal lives, she had explained to me, and so after she determined Gus would be ideal for her fatherand herselfshe had plotted to make sure they got together. Like many children of alcoholics (in Charles's case, a recovering one), Jennifer felt she was responsible for everybody in the world. After the rehearsal, I discovered that she had gone around to all the pews and inserted white ribbons with the numbers 1, 2, and 3 into the appropriate pages of the hymnals so tomorrow's wedding guests would be sure to find their places quickly for the chosen hymns.
Through the closed windows of my study I could hear the muted scrape-scrape of fallen leaves on the weathered bricks of the garth that connected the rectory to the church. Dry, tentative agitations similar in tone to those of my well-bred parishioners, shuffling and murmuring among themselves at coffee hour over the latest assault (usually mine) on All Saints High Balsam's time-honored customs, or deploring the fast-crumbling status of the world as they'd always known it. I scribbled a reminder to myself to get someone to clean our gutters before the snow came. Otherwise Adrian would be up there on the tall ladder, and he already had more jobs than he could handle.
What form, if any, was Gus's prenuptial nervousness taking? Was it different when you were forty-two? Six years ago I had been twenty-seven and terrified my marriage still might not come to pass because I desired it so much.
On the eve of my wedding, I sat in my seminary room, almost afraid to move, and said a certain collect for evening prayer over and over until I knew it by heart.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
Reading Group Guide
1. Is Evensong a religious book, a book about religion, or neither?
2. Was the profession of the heroine a plus or a minus in your own reading of the novel? Did you find it difficult to empathize with a minister who was female, or with a female who was a minister? Would men and women have different answers to this question?
3. Did you feel that Gail Godwin was writing from serious religious convictions?
4. Were you convinced by Margaret's thoughts about her calling as she went about her daily tasks? For example, how do you think she handled crises such as Helen Britt's tragedy or the dying Shaun asking if there were an afterlife?
5. How did you feel about the burning of the church at the end of the novel? Was there a message there?
6. Is Gail Godwin's most important topic women's search for identity? What are the womenMargaret, Gus, Grace, Madelyn, Helen Britt in Evensong searching for?
7. On page six, Godwin writes, "Mothers and fathers go away and never come back." Are the departing parents (Margaret's mother, Adrian's father, Grace Munger's parents, Chase Zorn's and Father Mountjoy's parents) running away from their lives or toward something they perceive as salvation? Is anything positive accomplished by their flight? What do their abandoned children have in common? What do the unrepentant Chase and the obsessively competent Jennifer have in common? With such a large number of families split up in different ways, does the sudden appearance of Tony seem contrived or unrealistic? And how would you have handled the situation if you had been Margaret and Tony had revealed his secret to you?
8. Grace Munger's aggressive, evangelical Christianity, which confronts the world with a "he who is not with me is against me" style of rhetoric, is contrasted vividly with the faith of the conscientious but quiet Margaret. Is this contrast at the heart of the book? Godwin's story unfolds within the confines of a fairly ordinary community with the usual troubles and conflicts. Is Grace Munger put into the story to shake up the complacency of the community? Is she following a genuine call to assert the presence of God in High Balsam at the time of the millennium?
9. Does the reader get to know Adrian Bonner enough to know where his religious sympathies fall? Is he too cerebral to become a satisfactory husband for Margaret? Does he elicit your sympathy or your exasperation?
10. "The gift of your art goads and inspires me to risk further narrative adventures of my own," says Margaret to her twenty- year- old daughter near the conclusion of Evensong. What narrative adventures do you envisage for Margaret if Godwin should ever decide to write a sequel? Does reading Evensong cause those of you who haven't read its prequel, Father Melancholy's Daughter, to want to find out more about how Margaret Bonner became the person she is, or have you learned all you need to know about her as a woman and a minister? If you have read both volumes, did Margaret mature as you might have expected from the young woman you met in Father Melancholy's Daughter? Would you recommend this novel to a friend who has no interest in any kind of organized religion or belief in a higher being? If so, why?