With apologies to Dana Carvey

Writer learns to appreciate the strengths and charms of real 'church ladies'
May 1, 2007

Do you remember Dana Carvey's portrayal of the "Church Lady" on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s? Pursed lips, hair in a bun, support hose, thick-heeled shoes, a voice like a serrated fish knife? She had a passion for finding sin in every member of her congregation. Lust was her favorite vice, and she found it everywhere.

Lately, that image keeps coming back to me. I always thought it was a riot, and I thought it had more than a grain of truth to it. Recently though, in thinking about my parish and its "church ladies," I wonder. I still think Carvey's portrayal hilarious, but I no longer am so sure about that grain of truth.

I was a prodigal daughter when I returned to my mother church. I had a spiritually dissipated past. The welcome I received from the rector and others at St. Paul's Church, Port Townsend, Washington, startled me. Could I have underestimated Christians for all those years?

"Yes," was the answer. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Wednesday night soup-and-discussion meetings in the old Parish Hall. That's where I first got to know a few of St. Paul's formidable church ladies.

Eating my first bowl of chowder, I felt awed by the other women at the Lenten supper. They seemed so muscular in their spiritual devotions, especially compared to me. They read their daily office, all three passages. Read their Day-by-Day every blessed day. Got up an hour early in the morning just to do devotional bench-presses. Prayed in the morning and prayed at night. Frankly, they intimidated me.

It's a short step, spiritually speaking, from intimidation to resentment, and I confess I entertained a few dark thoughts. Briefly, I imagined a holier-than-thou attitude in these ladies that I never actually saw.

Maybe that's where the grain of truth resides in Carvey's Church Lady -- not in the women themselves, but in us, when we look at them. It's so much easier to imagine that a steady pew-holder thinks she's better than I than to admit that, in some ways, she actually might be better.

My own continual doubts, uncertainties, fears that I'm a hypocrite, struggles to find a daily devotional practice that's more enriching than annoying, internal questions about what's really good and what's just acting good, uncertainty about right actions toward my family and friends -- all this makes up a large part of my spiritual life. When I run into somebody who appears to know what she's doing, my first reaction can be a bit spiteful. But because of St. Paul's church ladies, my resentment was short-lived.

First, they listened to me as if I might actually have something to say. Then they ate my chili and asked for the recipe. I was totally disarmed.

Next, the rector roped me into updating the church history, and through that project I met more of St. Paul's church ladies. These women gave me an image of parish life as deep and broad as the community itself.

When the rector put me on the Worship Committee, I starting hearing, monthly, both respect for our religious tradition and support for new ideas. These formidable church ladies offered me priceless encouragement for my writing endeavors. They welcomed me.
I like to be in the same room with these women. I like to hear them talk. I like to hear how their souls work. It makes me think that maybe ... if I work at this for a few more years ... if I listen closely ... maybe someday I can be a real church lady myself.

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