Light and Dark in St. Michael’s Chapel
John C. Rankin
I was raised in the Unitarian-Universalist church, where I remember Sunday School teachers who were very skeptical of the Bible, even agnostic, and they taught me the same. To be skeptical is good, if in pursuit of the truth, but these skepticisms I was taught struck me as explaining away too much, or protesting too hard. So though I was a self-conscious agnostic in of the summer of 1967 at age fourteen, I had always been amazed by the universe and my own existence in it. Thus I became a skeptic of the skepticisms I was taught. That September I began ninth grade (“third form”) at South Kent School, a small boarding school for boys in the Housatonic highlands of western Connecticut. South Kent had a daily chapel schedule rooted in the Episcopal liturgy.
Chapel was required, but I determined not to participate, saying to myself, “I don’t believe this stuff.” So I did not sing, recite, pray, genuflect or take communion. But that proved a “dangerous” thing to do. For while other students were participating, outwardly, at one level or another, I ended up occupying my mind reading the words of the liturgy and hymns, as they were recited and sung. I was interested in the possible existence of God.
On November 1, I was standing outside the chapel in the interlude before walking down the hill to dinner. As the air pricked my spine, I felt alive. It was delightfully cold, and in those rural hills the Milky Way was exceptionally clear that evening – like a white paint stroke against a black canvas. I considered its awesome grandeur and beauty, and then I posed to myself this sequence of thought:
If there is a God, then he must have made all this for a purpose, and that purpose must include my existence, and it must include the reason I am asking this question. And if this is true, then I need to get plugged into him.
I wanted to know either way, and I was convinced that if there were a God, then it would be most natural to become rooted in my origins. But I wanted verification. The “if” clauses were real.
This was a commitment to myself, in the sight of the universe, in the sight of a possible God. It was in fact a prayer to an unknown God.
One or several evenings later I was the first student into chapel, taking my assigned seating in the small balcony. As I sat down, and looked forward in the empty sanctuary, I said under my breath, “Good evening God.” Immediately I retorted to myself, “Wait a minute John. You don’t even know if there is a God. How can you say ‘good evening’ to him?”
But also immediately I became aware of a reality that was prior to and deeper than the intellect, of a truth that held the answer to any and all of my questions. There was a God, I knew deep within me, and I knew that I had just lied to myself by saying I did not know, even though it was only now that I knew I knew. My heart knew before my mind knew, but as part of the whole that my mind was now grasping. I had yet to speak it (see Romans 10:9-10).
In this moment, God’s presence ratified the reality of my belief as I simultaneously discerned a Presence literally hovering over me, filling the entire balcony. And critically, this Presence was hovering and waiting for my response. It was a powerful, warm inviting and embracing cloud. This all happened within a moment’s time, and I realized that I did believe. No sooner had I exhaled my agnostic retort, did I then inhale and say, “Yes I do (believe).” As I did, this literal presence of God descended upon and filled my entire being – heart, soul, mind and body.
Now I knew nothing at the time of the divine name and nature of Yahweh’s presence and glory, as experienced by the Israelites in the exodus community with the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple. Nor of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet the grace of God came into my life that November evening, as he but gently crossed my path with a touch of his presence. I asked an intellectual question in view of an awesome universe, and was answered by the presence of the awesome Creator. Light came into darkness. In remarkable contrast, I had an experience in that same chapel four-and-a-half years later, in the spring of 1972 (I enjoyed the third form so much I took it twice). The chapel’s name, interestingly, is St. Michael’s, named after the warring angel who defeats Satan in Revelation 12:7-9.
I was up late one evening in the dining room of the Old Building doing some work when a friend burst in, horrified, on me and several other seniors. He described to us in halting breaths how he had been waiting in the chapel for another friend to finish some work in the adjacent library. As he was, the communion bells rang out three times from the balcony. Thinking he was being spoofed by someone, he called out for the prankster to reveal himself. Silence. So he climbed the wooden stairs to the balcony, searched it, and nobody was there. There was no place to hide apart from where he searched, no other stairs, and all footsteps in that small chapel were most audible. A sense of abiding and evil darkness overtook him, and he fled in horror down the hill to the Old Building.
I was the only one of the several seniors there who took him seriously (or was willing to admit it). But too, I recently learned that the friend he was waiting for had a similar experience some weeks earlier. He was in the chapel late one evening, keeping track of some under-formers in the adjacent building. Then the chapel bell rang three times, no one on the campus heard it, and a dark and foreboding sense of evil came in.
In my young faith, I believed there was nothing to fear, so I suggested we return to the chapel and investigate. It was just past midnight, and as we came within 20-30 feet of the chapel, we both looked into the windows. What we saw was a darkness that was blacker than black against the diffused light of nearby buildings, pulsating, alive, extraordinarily evil and very angry at our presence. Another step and we stopped, having come against a terribly tangible but invisible wall of air that was thicker than thick, impenetrable and driving us back. All my critical faculties were alert, and the experience was as real as anything I have known with the five senses. My friend and I turned and fled. I prayed until 4:00 a.m., trying to understand it.
One clue to what was happening is that the “witching hour” is known to happen from midnight to 3:00 a.m., when covens of witches (sometimes including warlocks), those into the deepest witchcraft, regularly meet to do their rituals and to curse their enemies, especially Christians. They prefer certain days and seasons on their pagan calendars, related ultimately to astrological factors. This evil presence was gathering just before midnight when my friend was initially spoofed, and it may have been proximate to May Day, one such pagan holiday – but at the time I did not know to consider this element. As well, the Housatonic Highlands of western Connecticut and the adjoining Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts are well-known for concentrations of such activity.
I was blown away by the experience at the time. The very chapel where the supernatural presence of Yahweh descended on me in 1967 was the very chapel where this demonic presence bearing the mark of Satan himself assaulted my friend and me in 1972. The contest of the darkness seeking to displace the Light.