the minister’s gray veil

Surely, it was the onset of some sort of madness, though its cause, despite the level of debate it engendered among the congregation of the Montmorenci Lutheran Church, was never actually agreed upon. Certainly, it had to be something akin to insanity, temporary or otherwise; the Reverend Pennypacker (the “new man”, as he was generally known, though he’d been there nearly six years at the time of the incident in question) may have been a little too forward in his opinions on Vietnam or the Negro question, but never so much as to be more than mildly controversial, and no one could argue that he was impeccable and precise in his habits and the carrying out of his duties, which made his ostensible crack-up even more unfathomable. There were whispers of course: there were those postulated that the reverend had broken under the strain of closeted homosexuality (while not effeminate, exactly, Pennypacker was a thin, somewhat wispy man, pointedly so in comparison to his predecessor, the Reverend “Bulldog” Beecher, who was large, beefy, and old-time Western Pennsylvanian—as the head deacon put it, Bulldog was shot-and-a-beer, steak and potatoes. This guy is…hell, I don’t know, quiche and cobb salad?), while there were others, equally as insistent and possessing equally little hard evidence, that swore his collapse was due to a dalliance with a girl from a church youth group over in Ridgway which resulted in the teen’s pregnancy and subsequent hushed-up abortion.

Whatever the case or cause, it became apparent (or at least agreed upon by the majority of his flock) one Sunday not long after Easter that the reverend had gone quite mad, indeed. When the vestry door opened, rousing the congregation from either somnambulance or gossip, Reverend Pennypacker appeared, his cassock and vestments accessorized with some grayish, vaguely gauzy fabric apparently intended as a veil over his face, the material (it turned out he’d fashioned it from a pair of panty hose his wife had consigned to the trash bin) held in place by the battered porkpie hat he favored on less formal occasions, giving the scene a surreal and slightly comic aura, as if Fellini was directing some Hope-and-Crosby road movie. Naturally, those who did not maintain a stunned silence were prone to mutter, chuck nervously, or (in one or two cases) outright guffaw. Whatever noises were present subsided quickly once Pennypacker reached the pulpit. As the majority of those present fully expected to be treated to the rantings of a madman, there was some surprise (and perhaps disappointment) once he started to speak in a calm, even tone.

You may be wondering what has inspired my particular fashion choices today (There was the odd uneasy chuckle here and there; obviously, no one could tell if the man was smiling or not.) I would assure all of you that I have not suffered any recent disfigurement, and I remain as handsome as ever (There were a few more chuckles here; no one, certainly Pennypacker himself, considered the reverend a particularly good-looking man.) I wear this somewhat improvised veil as something of an object lesson. You may have heard of the Hawthorne story where the minister dons a black veil–not because of his own sin necessarily, though he was certainly aware of his own sinfulness–but because he saw evil–the black mark of original sin, of indelible evil–on the faces of all around him. What’s more, once donning it, he never removes the veil, not even upon his deathbed; his life is a slowly but constantly accelerating removal of himself from the affairs of his flock and mankind in general.

It is a sad story, certainly, and you could say even tragic as well, but I believe there is something more there, something insidious in the tale. If we all bear the mark of original sin, if we all wear its veil as a matter of course, then where is our blame, what responsibility lies with us for our actions? If we commit some offense, be the sin petty or mortal, this idea of the veil is, in a sense, our Get Out Of Jail Free card; we are awash in sin, after all, so what can we do? It’s God’s will, after all. There’s nothing more we can do; it is out of our hands. Yet there is another side to who we are as men. We have done extraordinary things on grand scales to free the downtrodden, here and abroad. We have performed kindnesses as individuals that would be worthy of Jesus himself. We have, as a people and as our selves, done things that show the best that men can be, possibly better than we believed we could be. If we are inherent sinful beings, could we have done so? I believe that answer is clear enough that I should not have to state it. If we sin, if we are evil, we cannot place the blame for that on some ancient crime, some remote stain from our past. The blame lies in our choices; the blame lies in our selves.

I will not, like the woeful Parson Hooper in Mr. Hawthorne’s tale, wear this veil for the rest of my days here on earth. Frankly, I find the parson’s decision to be both prideful–as if he were the only the only man to recognize the existence of sin in his fellow man!–as well as a flag of surrender. I believe we are not predestined to fail, to wallow in sin; I, for myself, will attempt to embrace the finest in myself, and accept that my failure to do so is my failure and mine alone. Today, my brethren, I charge you to do the same.

With that statement, Pennypacker left the pulpit and returned to the vestry. After a few decidedly uneasy moments, the choir director launched the singers into a somewhat hesitant version of “Lift High The Cross”, after which the congregation removed itself somewhat fitfully from the church.

There were one or two people who were very supportive of the reverend’s sermon, but those were close friends of the pastor’s– people who had moved into town fairly recently and, so it was rumored, taken part in anti-war demonstrations in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. A few more allowed, though not with any particular conviction, that Reverend Pennypacker had made some points worth thinking upon. The prevailing sentiment, however, was that the pastor had done something wrong, gravely wrong, although few people could have actually articulated just what it was about his words that were so offensive; the only person who actually came out and said anything was the head deacon, who, at the following week’s Rotary Club meeting, growled loudly enough for everyone to hear If I wanted to watch a play on Sunday, I’d ask the bishop to send us Richard goddamn Burton. In any case, it was agreed that Pennypacker had acted inappropriately–no, something worse than that, something not easily classified–and the council of deacons drafted a letter which said in no uncertain terms that the man simply had to go.

Like any clergyman who rises to a position of some power and prestige, the Lutheran bishop in Erie was first and foremost a pragmatic man. He’d read the letter from the deacons with no small measure of discomfort; he’d heard the odd grumbling now and then about virtually every pastor under his jurisdiction at one time or another, but this was certainly a more serious matter. That being said, it was no easy matter to try and replace a minister in these small towns–most of the newly-minted seminary graduates these days were young, socially conscious activist types, and Montmorenci Falls was isolated, even by the standards of that corner of the state. Given the seeming intractability posed by both sides of his dilemma, the bishop hoped to follow the course preferred by most men in his position–namely, hoping that all involved would find something more pressing to worry over, thus resolving the problem without his active participation. His particular plan of non-attack was thwarted by the irritation of the granddaughter of the founder of the town’s mills, a spinster who was the only descendant who had not taken the money and run to a more hospitable locale, in addition to which she was not only the largest donor to the church in Montmorenci Falls, but the largest donor to the Lutheran Church in all of the vast acreage between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. She cornered the bishop at a reception following the ceremony welcoming new priests to the synod; he had been speaking to the parents of one of the newly ordained pastors when the sound of crackers crunching and a muted mnmph , mnmph materialized beside him. She steered the clergyman (leaving his farewells and apologies in his wake) over to one side of the banquet room. Now this is just the opinion of a foolish old woman, she said as she coiled her arm around his, all the while half-chewing and half-smiling, her poorly affixed false teeth giving her the appearance of an ancient and tiny alligator, but honestly, Bishop, that young man we have down in the Falls just won’t do. Now, where were those tasty vegetable crackers? Leaving the bishop with a look which assumed the matter to be settled, she toddled off toward the hors d’oeuvres.

Reverend Pennypacker was gone in a matter of weeks after his veil-donning sermon. His resignation was abrupt; as one wag put it, the letter was written and delivered while the car was parked and running outside of church. He’d left no clues, in his letter or otherwise, where he was going or what he planned to do. There were several rumors over time, the favorite being that he’d taken an assistant chaplain’s position at Cornell University (John Peplowski, who’d struggled through two semesters there before the Selective Service took him off the university’s hands, was fond of saying There’s no God there and plenty of hippies. Sounds like Pennypacker’s kind of place, and it was said that he was a silent but influential figure in the armed takeover of the school’s student union), but no one in Montmorenci Falls, even his few close associates, ever heard from the reverend again. The church itself did not fare particularly well after Pennypacker’s departure; as the bishop had feared, few young pastors wanted to go to such a backwater, especially one that had gotten a reputation as inhospitable to young preachers (ministers being no less prone to hear or spread gossip than any other profession), and there were more than a few who categorically refused to go to the town. The constant procession of here-today-gone-tomorrow pastors mixed in with the odd retired priest working as an interim solution, combined with the decline and eventual closing of the Montmorenci Mills, led to a decrease of the congregation’s membership and collections, and the church survived the first Reagan inauguration by only a few weeks, and the former head deacon, whose tastes ran more to nostalgia than self-examination, would often be heard at his seat at the Miss Elker Diner saying I can’t say for sure what killed that old church, but I can assure one and all that it is certainly dead.

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