by Father John Boonzaaijer
Stone pillars in the little English church bordered the Norman apse, surrounded the altar, and encircled the choir stalls, where two dozen young souls, from St. Andrew’s Academy and Good Shepherd school, nervously held their music, ready to sing. Silent tombstones checkered the floor. A chalice and paten, worn and dented from centuries of hopeful fingers and fervent lips, reflected the candlelight. The early gray light filtered through stained glass windows, which told the stories of damaged souls and faith kept alive.
The students had come to sing and study, and as pilgrims always have, to return other than as they left – to shed a burden and purge the soul, and to bring some of the goodness that Christ has given elsewhere to the problems of their lives at home. The beauty of these ancient churches was a great part of that goodness.
At another parish, built in 675 by Irish priests with their wives and children, the students chortled over the irony of breaking forth the Te Deum between walls made of abandoned Roman stone, Minerva lying on her side. Elsewhere we’d seen the corner church turned a repair garage, a restaurant—or a mosque.
Then the voices begin, the priests, the teachers, and the students singing ancient prayers and canticles of the Church, as well as more recent music, all expressing the same faith in “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” as one lovely song has it. The harmonies weave together the voices of the choristers, who listen for each other that they might sing with one voice:
The tree of life my soul hath seen, Laden with fruit and always green.
The trees of nature fruitless be compared with Christ the apple tree.
I’m weary with my former toil, Here I will sit and rest awhile;
Under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.
The final note rose to the farthest arch, cantering from side to side, making sure each corner of God’s holy space was filled, before settling, never to leave, into the cracks and crevices and tombs of stone, and the broken hearts above them in the pews. These voices, too, were now forever added to all those that have sung here before.
During that trip, the group often heard, with the searching eye of a many a parishioner upon them, “We do not have much reason for hope, but today your students cause us to pray again.” Will these hands and voices be the rebuilding of a decaying Church and culture? They are weak and sinful, and they, too, drink deeply from the poisoned well of secularism; can they find older, faithful company under the shelter of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree? Can dying faith be kept alive?
Now these three remain: Faith, Hope and Charity.
Father John Boonzaaijer is Rector of Chapel of the Cross in Dallas, Texas, and he is the Headmaster of The St. Timothy School, the parochial school of the Chapel.