Smoke and Mirrors

I wrote this piece a few years ago, when my church job was a bit more visible. Now I doubt most folks who attend the churches I work with have a clue who I am. And that’s fine with me. They aren’t going to the church website or Facebook page to hear my voice, they are going to hear the voice of their church. One of the things my daughter, my BF and I share (despite how much my field(s) differ from theirs) is the belief that our jobs, when done well, are invisible to others. My daughter liked to paraphrase Isaac Asimov in job interviews: Good government is indistinguishably from magic. I like that thought. 

The three of us got into a little discussion about invisible work again this week. And that got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of doing invisible work. And how to use the good to make up for the bad. And all that got me thinking about this piece. I still like it, even though I am not doing that kind of work anymore. I hope you do too.

Every Thursday afternoon I go back in time. I leave my office and with it my two phones (one with multiple lines) and my laptop (running multiple programs) behind. I walk out of the carpeted, temperature-controlled office area and walk into the huge, empty sanctuary. My footsteps ring on the stone floor and echo off the stone walls. The light is dim, tinged blue or red or gold, depending on which window the sun is coming through. I stay in the shadows, using the cloister walk against the wall. I pass through the far doors at the back of the sanctuary and walk from one end of the narthex from the other. I pass the huge, heavy front doors of the church that, in the find tradition of front doors throughout the Midwest, are rarely used, and then mostly by guests. And I enter the prayer chapel.

I go to the prayer chapel other times of the week, especially now that two 20-minute prayer sits a day have been added to my job description.  Sure, I could do those prayers other places, but a prayer seems somehow more prayer-like in a chapel than it does at a kitchen table when the candle and incense share space with dirty dishes and junk mail (although you have to love the symbolism of moving one aside for the other). And a prayer chapel where no one prays is just an empty room that quickly collects ladders, paint cans, folding chairs and extra baptismal fonts.

On those days, when I walk down to the prayer chapel to pray, I feel as if I am joining a fine tradition of people, around the world, of various backgrounds and faiths, who make a similar walk, who disengage from day-to-day world to commune for a bit with a bigger world. You know those people, even if you do not share their beliefs. You see them at least once a season on your favorite TV crime drama. The tough, bitter cop looks them up and down and asks them how it could be that, since they were in the church/temple/synagogue at the time of the brutal murder, they heard and saw nothing. “Where were you at 2:33 this afternoon?” “I was at prayer.” They say simply. The prayer chapel is all the way on the other side of the building.  No, no one saw them. Unfortunately, few people come to the prayer services. Yes, they still hold them. Because it’s what is done.

But, as Arlo Guthrie would say, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about Thursdays.

When I walk down to the prayer chapel on Thursday, I take a glass of water with me. Before I pray, I fill the bowl of water at the door. I fold the prayer shawls and drape them over the chair backs. I straighten the table cloth. I pick the match sticks and incense stubs out of the sand in the incense burner. As I do these things, I am deeply aware of being part of a tradition much older than the TV priest/rabbi/minister/monk who at first seems almost foolishly weak and naïve but who, after being falsely accused when rumors of an affair surface or being held in contempt of court for not revealing what was said in confession or talking down the junky with a gun, is shown to possess an amazing inner toughness which earns them respect of that bitter detective. On Thursdays, I feel myself moving through time to join one of the oldest professions on the planet.

Let’s just bypass the “oldest profession” jokes, shall we? I’ll cede that point. The second oldest profession in my opinion is Shaman. Wise Woman. Medicine Man. The keeper of wisdom, the teacher of customs and laws, the performer of rituals, the teller of Stories That Matter.

On the day when the priest walked up to the altar and found a mess, found that yesterday’s sacrifice had not, in fact, been eaten by the gods, but rather was still here and was now attracting flies – on that day my profession was born.

My predecessors disposed of the sacrifices, scrubbed the altar, made sure the knives were sharp, the wood was dry, the robes were clean. Later, as Theater, and then Education, broke off from Religion (isn’t that what they taught me in that History of Theater class so many years ago?), we raised the curtains, painted the sets, ordered the books, swept the floors. We have had many names through the ages: Beadle, curate, sexton, lesser priest, techie, gaffer, department secretary, janitors. We are Church Ladies, Lunch Ladies and Best Boys. Our name is Legion.

Like the Levites, ours is a lesser priesthood people are often born into. My mother was a church janitor for a while. My dad, when he wasn’t acting in community theater, was painting sets. They both worked at schools. I grew up the first one at every church, school or theater event. I played under pews, behind sets, at desks.  I still have trouble leaving these places without turning out the last light and locking the door.

There are no commencement or ordination or award ceremonies to tell us we have arrived. Our moment of acceptance comes when another member of our profession walks into our office or cube or workroom and says “This is the Key to the Secret Storage Room. Do not tell anyone you have It. Do not tell anyone about the Secret Storage Room. People will fill It up with crap. Do not lose the Key. There are only four Copies. I have One. You have One. Bob down in Maintenance has One. There is One hidden in the fake palm tree in the lobby if you lose your Copy.” That is when we know they like us, they really, really like us.

We don’t wear robes or collars or caps and gowns or leotards. We wear black and soft-soled shoes or jeans and work boots or tennis shoes. Some of us wear office casual. But no matter what we wear, the goal is the same, to do our job as efficiently and invisibly as possible. Even when, on High Holy Days – be they holiday services or performances or commencements or academic conferences – we have to dress up, we do so with an eye to ease of movement and practicality. We know there is a good chance before the celebration is over we will need to secure a wire, move a podium, find angel wings, change the toner cartridge, mop apple cider off the floor. We know there is a good chance these shoes will never be the same, those pantyhose are ruined, the toner will never come out of this suit. That’s why, if you only see us at work, you never see us in our best, only our second best.

We may not spend much time pondering The Truth or contemplating the Great Secrets. But we have truths of our own and we know plenty of secrets. We know what’s behind every door in our building. We know what is behind more doors than you know about. We know where all the light switches are and how to find them in the dark. We know which light switches should not be turned on together. We know where the breaker box is if you do. We know who donated that ugly couch in the lounge and who will be offended if it gets thrown out. We have the private cell phone number for every important person in our organization. And several not so important people.

We dole out our truths on a need to know basis. We will look you in the eye and tell you it can’t be done, when maybe it could be done, but it’s a dumb idea and we both know it. We will tell you the director is meeting with a big donor, when the truth is he told us he does not want to talk to you. We will tell you the pastor is with a parishioner and cannot be disturbed, when in reality she’s standing right here, next to us, eating a brownie, but we know you are selling something and she doesn’t make those decisions, we do and we are in no mood.

On the other hand, we can look you in the eye and know we need to pull the teacher out of class, the pastor out of a call with the bishop or the director out of dress rehearsal. And we will get you a cup of coffee and keep you company until they get here.

We know the altar is on wheels for ease of movement and has cupboard doors on the back for storage of communion wafers and candle stubs. We know Tinkerbell is a light on a fishing line. We know which books have the answers in the back. We know the truth behind the people you are in awe of. We know the professor changed your life cannot balance her checkbook. We call the bishop “Sally.” To her face. We know the pastor has had only one pair of dress pants for the past 20 years. We know the director who makes you tremble has a day job as a bus driver.

You know that man behind the curtain? The one you aren’t supposed to pay attention to? Yeah, we hung the curtain, ran the wire for the voice modulator and focused the green lights.

We know it’s all smoke and mirrors. Hell, we polish the mirror and have the smoke pellet distributor on speed dial.

But this is the biggest secret we know: You need us. Not just to get the bills paid and the newsletters out and the light bulbs changed. You need us because you need the smoke and mirrors.

Face it. If some woman in tie-dyed tights and too many scarves sat down next to you in a coffeeshop and started talking about the major themes of Fahrenheit 451, you would move away. If some gaunt, balding man on the bus started going on and on about the Divine Indwelling, you would give him a buck and get off at the next stop. If you woke up on morning and found a group of people speaking in iambic pentameter on your front porch, you’d call the cops. So we put angel wings on children, move desks and install smart boards, put gels in lights and raise the curtain. We know you – and all of us – need these things.

The smoke and mirrors tell you to listen, pay attention. They announce “You about to hear something Important.” Without us, the Great Wizard is just a con man from Kansas. We know (as does he) you were always brave and smart and had a heart. We know you could have gone home at any time. But we also know you would not have believed the con man. Ah – but when we add some smoke and mirrors suddenly the Wizard speaks. And then you know it, too.

So, we work long hours, often for no pay and less recognition. We create spreadsheets and set pieces and class schedules. We crawl under stages and run lights and put out newsletters. And for the most part we do it with a fair amount of joy. Because whatever our job description is, it boils down to this: Feed my sheep. The show must go on. Teach the children well.

This piece was shared on Facebook with my friends in 2011. I doubt you saw it then, but if you did, it has been edited slightly to correct for typos caused by stupid fingers. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s