The clothes I wore the first time I attended a service made me look like green veggie stuck in the sparkling teeth of a TV news reader.
The church was packed with people in their Sunday best. The men wore suits and ties. The women were poles of elegance, topped by hats.
I had on blue jeans and a button-up blue denim jacket.
I thought about that evening while reading a story titled An Expedition to the Pole, by Annie Dillard. In it, she discusses her ups and downs with church services by comparing them with polar expeditions.
Her point is that the goal of polar expeditions is to arrive at “the absolute (pole),” just as the goal of services is to meet “the absolute (God).”
Her point is that explorers who fail to reach the poles are those who don’t take seriously the terrible, cold, inaccessibility of what they seek. Those who do reach the poles are those who replace cherished navy uniforms with sealskins and adopt ‘ignoble’ values like using dogs to pull sledges.
Her point is that worshippers too must take seriously the terrible inaccessibility of Him whom they seek. Dillard, master of the “show, don’t tell” writing technique, doesn’t spell it out. But it’s clear she means us to think of the terrors of God, the Holy One, when we read these lines.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Her point is that we must do that which is “appropriate to conditions.”
But this is Dillard, who never mocks. She signals us not to mock, as we might mock the “fur hat of a Doctor of Reason” worn by John Murray who, in 1892, based only on ‘dredgings and soundings,’ deduced the existence and contours of Antarctica without ever seeing it or setting foot on it.
She ends with a scene of people, ice floes, penguins, a piano which (failed) explorers failed to abandon before they began their quests. The people are the same as in the church services which irked her before. When not strapped on the floating floes, they sing songs of praise. They sing as badly as before. No longer a critic, she joins in, with gusto.
Does it matter how we dress for services? Why don’t we wear helmets and strap ourselves into our seats? Why do we attend church services? Do we sing “take me as I am,” because we’re too lazy to change? Or to dress in a way which makes others more comfortable?