Christopher Reeve and West Cummington Church

posted October 12, 2004

Blog #6

“There are four things we all need. We need to love, and we need to be loved. We need to know and we need to be known.”

And I do. I want you to know who I am. That’s why I write. I want to be loved. That’s why I sing. But as I was sitting in church yesterday, listening to the parson preach, I thought, “Is that really all? Because I seem to need desperately to know that there will be enough mangos, salmon and butternut squash in my refrigerator for the rest of my life. I need to know that I will always be able to pay my heating bills. I need to know that if I or Tom gets sick, I will have a way of paying for it.”

I want to be set for life.

The minister is Stephen Philbrick, Parson (a word which means–drum roll please– “person,”) of the Congregational Church in West Cummington, MA. Tom and I discovered this church in early 2004 and have been coming here as often as possible ever since. Tom had a party last January, shortly after we began dating, to introduce me to his spiritual friends. Ann, Andy and Susan represented the Catholics; Rick the Buddhists, and Sharon was batting for the Baptists. Sitting next to Spiritual Friend Fran Henry, I said, “And where do you practice your form of spirituality?”

“At this little church near where I live. The minister is a poet and a shepherd,” said Fran.

That was enough for me to want to check it out. A poet and a shepherd? Sold.

The first time we visited, Stephen, a strong man in his fifties, wore a kind smile that made me feel he wanted to be friends but would wait for us to let him know we were ready. He was also wearing a big button saying, “This church affirms all marriages.” Another plus. I was comfortable. Fran was there, sitting next to Stephen’s wife, Connie, a potter like my beloved Aunt Elizabeth. Connie had huge beautiful eyes that looked straight at me, clear and welcoming.

But what won me over completely was the music. After a moment of silence at the beginning of the service, a small white haired woman named Penny, her back to us, began playing the piano and humming along softly. She was singing to herself, to God, maybe to us, inviting us into some kind of private meditation. And I felt the elusive Holy Spirit; that intangible Presence I’ve been looking for all these years. Sometimes I find the Spirit in an unacceptable receptacle, like a Grapevine church full of people who are going to vote for George W. Bush. I am not proud of my prejudices against fundamentalists. I recognize that my level of charity is that of a particularly unevolved Neanderthal, but there you have it. Think of it as a kind of spiritual tone-deafness. In order for me to come to God, God needs to be packaged in a way I can tolerate. God must know this, because She certainly has sent me wonderful teachers over the years in various guises: books by Marcus Borg and Thomas Merton, lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh, funky churches and spiritual centers all over the country that, for whatever reason, felt good but not quite like home.

Penny let me know I was home. She played “How Can I Keep From Singing” and “Abide with Me” and led African American spirituals, the kind my parents taught us when we were kids, singing around the kitchen table with an acoustic guitar. She stood on her tiptoes and sang with her head thrown back and joy pulsating out of her dancer’s body.

Then Stephen began preaching, mixing personal anecdotes with interpretations of the Bible I could get with (God as Superego in the Garden of Eden; Jesus, in saying He has come not to unify but to divide, as an “individuator”—encouraging us each to be true to our own peculiar Light), mingling scripture from the Tao and the Baseball Book of Wisdom with all the Gospel preachers (including the Gospel of Thomas.) This was the church I’d been looking for since reading M. Scott Peck’s A Different Drummer in 1990, a book which calls on churches to be havens for community building in our suffering, fragmented post suburban world.

Stephen also shared his poetry with us:

I am water,

You are clay

I am what the world needs

But you are what it is made of.

When we meet: mud, and muddy water;

Thickening, loosening, even (a little) panic.

Waiting for each to settle,

Within each.

It is a gospel of courage and honesty that he preaches. He preaches against the Iraq war, but he also preaches against the knee jerk reaction some of us liberals have of demonizing the US, automatically assuming our government means harm. He laments the war on terror by pointing out that by calling it a war on evil, we ignore the evil within ourselves: “The evil in ME; we can learn this anywhere, from any argument we’ve ever had with someone we love.” He goes on to say that we can learn this from Jesus: “if we know ourselves we will realize we are the children of God (yes, just as we really are.)” We have within us heavens and hells aplenty, but it is not what goes into our mouths that creates sin. It’s the hate that comes out of our mouths. The deeds that we do, the words that we say.

“This is not America bashing. This is a native son grieving.”

Tom and I left the church shaken. Our minds had been exercised, along with our hearts and our spirits. I have been to wonderful churches that exercised my mind. I have been to wonderful churches that exercised my spirit. Likewise, my heart. But never all three at once. We felt so happy, so full of joy, so deeply seen and loved it was almost hard to take. We told our friend Ann Turner about the experience. She nodded, and talked about the first time she felt God’s presence in that kind of way. “It felt like ‘savage joy’ and that it was so fierce, strong, and all- encompassing, that God knew I couldn’t take it in all at once. That He had to let me feel the joy of his presence in little bits, suited to the small handbag size of my heart.”

She told us about someone who was praying, and he was so filled with the joy of God’s presence, that all of the buttons on his waistcoat popped off as his chest expanded. That’s how I felt leaving West Cummington.

While we were tearing down after the Iron Horse last Saturday, I said to Dave Hower,” I envy you getting to be in so many bands. I am going to miss playing with Katryna so much.”

“You could be in other bands, too,” he pointed out.

I shook my head. “Somehow, that would feel like cheating to me,” I said. “Maybe what I’ll do is see if I could do some music at my church.”

The next evening, at 8pm, Penny called me up. “Nerissa, we’ve been talking. Any time you’d like to do music at West Cummington, we’d love to have you. In fact, I’m going away next week. Will you take over?”

So yesterday, Tom and I made our now familiar trek up the mountains to the little white church with no bathroom. Tom drove. On my lap were copies of the two hymnals and the folk song supplement, plus my own copy of Rise Up Singing. I still hadn’t decided what to do. I don’t play piano, so “Abide with Me” was going to be a challenge. But I’d circled Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul,” and also my favorite from the Christmas Revels, “Lord of the Dance,” and of course “Amazing Grace.” I also ventured my own “Give Me A Clean Heart,” a song I’d swiped from an amazing church in Amherst I went to once called Hope Church.

“I’ve never been more nervous in my life,” I told Tom.

“Why?” he said. “You do this all the time. You’ll be great.”

I shook my head emphatically. “It’s totally different. This feels like service. If I screw up in The Nields, I’m just making a fool of myself. If I screw up at church, I’m letting down the whole congregation. It’s disrespectful.”

Tom looked at me and grinned. “You think what you did last night at the Railway Cafe in North Adams wasn’t service? Besides, I was at church a few weeks ago when you were in Philadelphia. Penny forgot the words to one of the hymns and the chords too and she laughed and everyone laughed. No one’s going to care if you screw up. It just reminds all of us that we’re human.”

This made me feel better, and I remembered the first time I’d ever performed my own songs. I was fifteen and in high school, an all girls’ school called Madeira in Northern VA. My voice teacher wanted me to sing my own songs for the recital. This would’ve been fine, except when I got up there to play and sing, I noticed with dismay that my hands were no longer my own; they were trembling as if they had suddenly decided to engage in the Hippie Hippie Shake. Also, I no longer knew any of the words to any of the songs I’d ever sung, let alone the ones I’d written. I looked out in to the mass of teen-age girls, all of whom surely hated me and had been plotting my fall for eighteen months, or at least would giggle about pathetic me on the way back to classes.

“I’ve never done this before,” I said after attempting to put my trembling hands in the general vicinity of the fretboard of my guitar. “And I’m really scared.”

The entire auditorium exploded with the applause that only an all girls’ school can produce. They clapped courage into me, and I played my first song. They gave me a standing ovation. I haven’t really ever had stage fright since then.

We want to be known, Stephen said in his sermon yesterday. We want to love. (And some of us want security.) I signed on this morning and saw that Christopher Reeves had died. Even though, as readers of this blog now know, I prefer Spiderman to Superman, I loved Christopher Reeves. He was an example to me of an intrepid spirit. When I was going through my divorce and feeling very sorry for myself, I had a quotation of his above my desk:

Q: “How do you get through your life without feeling sorry for yourself?

A: Oh, I feel sorry for myself. I allow myself to feel completely miserable and self pitying for exactly one half hour a day. Then I stop. It’s essential. But it’s equally essential to count your blessings and keep hope alive.

The bad news for me is there’s no such thing as being set for life. I would’ve said, before June of 1995 that Chris Reeves was set for life. Then he was thrown from his horse and suffered a spinal chord injury. Still, he got to live for nine more years with purpose and love; he knew, he was known; he loved and was loved. He made himself see that every day, just as he advocated for others, becoming more and more a vessel for compassion and empathy as the years went on.

The bad news for me is I don’t get to lead a life with total security. But I can sing at the West Cummington Church; I can let myself be seen and loved by these people with the kind faces, and better yet, they can teach me to go back out into the world knowing how to see, know and to love. And when I am awake to this, I am so filled with happiness that the buttons burst off my waistcoat.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. Beautiful and thought-provoking as always, N! Congrats for you for mustering the courage and the grace to play at your church…I’m certain they loved you even more after hearing you play and sing. What a neat way to exercise your spirit while Katryna’s off adding to the Nields-Chalfant clan.

    My 12 and 9 year old cousins are enjoying your music, as I indoctrinate them…they especially enjoy “Your Wish is My Command” on the Live! album…particularly Katryna’s “blood and guts and guts and blood.”


  2. Being at your concerts is like going to church. It’s that feeling when people sing all together — even when it’s just you and Katryna.

  3. (hmmm…first comment didn’t post…take 2)

    Beautiful and thoughtful as always, N! So glad you have found a community that is spiritually fulfilling…I had it in college, I found it in LA, I’m working on it in DC. Good for you for mustering your courage and grace to sing at church–I am certain that you were loved and appreciated. What a great way to meet the need to perform while Katryna is off adding to the Nields-Chalfant clan!

    Thanks for the Chris Reeve quote…he was an incredible man.


  4. Hi Nerissa!

    That’s great that you have found a worship community that you can connect to. It’s such an important part of one’s spiritual life. That’s even more wonderful that you felt the Holy Spirit. She can be found in many places, including music.

    I also sing in my church’s choir and it brings me lots of fufillment as well.


  5. It might be that Christopher Reeve’s heartbreak touched us in ways that would have been impossible had it not been for his life-changing accident. Perhaps he was more loved (and more loving), more known (and more knowing) on account of the evil that befell him. None of us are immune to the sort of thing that befell him. Was Christopher Reeve an inspiration to millions of people? Yes he was. Was he greatly beloved on this account? Yes indeed. Did his life make a difference for the better then? Yes it did. Is the world a better place for his having been here among us? Yes it is. Yes, yes, yes, yes.

    Would Jesus have been nearly so loved throughout the centuries, but for the evil that befell him? I don’t think so. It really does seem to be necessary that evil comes. But it does not seem also necessary for us to cave in and succumb to despair and hopelessness. Chrstopher Reeve showed us all that spiritual truth can overcome even heartbreaking incapacity.

    We can live hopeful, caring lives too, just like Christopher Reeve, or just like Jesus, loving and being loved, knowing and being known. “Just like Christopher Columbus”… you don’t know what you’ve found.


  6. It’s a trade-off, really, that notion of being set for life. I’ve thought about it a lot recently in the months since being laid off when my whole world was turned upside down. I was miserable with it, in fact. What was worse, I didn’t really even have a clear idea what would make me feel like I was set for life. Tons of money? (That would help) Unreserved love from my wife, kids, cats and dog? (Already have that) The knowledge of when and how I would die and everyone I cared about? (Probably not, come to think of it)

    My wife is an artist. She has no health insurance of her own, no steady paycheck and no promise of steady work. When I was out of work, we were dependent upon what we could bring in from her jewelry.

    All of which made me spend a lot of time talking with God. Some of it was spent praying in despiration, other time was spent being really, really angry. The thing about God, though, is that He understands all of that. He’d rather we came to him as the imperfect people that we are, confessing all to Him. I view Him as a very loving parent who wants the best for us — only He doesn’t talk back to us quite as often nor in quite the ways I wish He would.

    Finding a spiritual home is wonderful. Another true home is always a welcome place!

    As for songs, try finding The Innocence Mission’s “Christ is My Hope”. It’s an EP they put out a few years ago with simple, beautiful renditions of hymns. I can hear you doing them as well.

    I said farewell to Christopher Reeve on my regular blog ( A picture of one of our cats came out with her fur being Superman blue-black.

    Nerissa, you’re doing a great job with the blog. Keep up the fantastic writing — and reply to your responses once in a while!

  7. I second the recommendation for The Innocence Mission’s Christ is My Hope. Their music is beautiful.

    I’m glad you’ve found what you’ve been looking for. I’ve only felt that spiritual completeness a few times, and never at the church of my youth.


  8. Hey, I didn’t know I was supposed to reply to my responses! Mea culpa. I am in awe of all of you and your wisdom. Thank you for sharing your stories and points of view. I will check out Innocence Mission. Also, did anyone tape Bob Dylan’s interview on Morning Edition this morning? I only caught the last two minutes.

  9. NPR has the bob dylan interview archived on their website. Right now it’s on the front page but it might move for tomorrow.

    i never did enjoy playing my guitar in church but my sister is trying to persuade me to join her when she plays piano. i’m glad you have found a place to call home.

  10. Reading Nerissa’s inspiring tale reminds me of the Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead lyricist) line, “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” Whether it’s the parson or the applauding classmates or a quote from a disabled movie star, we come to know more. It’s the openness to learning that brings us there.

    What Nerissa may not realize is the extent to which how her words do the same for her fans. I get a chill every time I hear, “And a son is delivered at the cusp of the springtime, and the darkness infused with sunshine.” And now her blog provides new sources of wisdom and art.

    “It’s not much, and yet it’s everything.”

    How blessed we all are.

    Jeff from Charlotte

  11. Ah, Jeff, one of my favorite Nields songs…and now you have it running through my head (replacing dragon unicorn)…the line that gets me every time is “there are workshops and sharing and painting and singing and dancing and praying, karate, tai chi, there are temples to elephants and gateways to heaven, laughter and cruel tragedy”…after seeing katryna sing these lines at FRFF, they have stuck with me and give me chills every time.


  12. Nerissa,

    Your writing is like a salve. You write with such tenderness and honesty, it fills my heart every time.

    Every time I hear you and Katryna sing, it does feel like church. There is such a power and a spirit that encompasses us when you sing–it’s quite divine.

    And you like Thich Nhat Hanh!! That is so cool! I am in love with that man. He is the cutest little old monk, and he could teach Bush a few lessons. Have you actually gotten to hear him speak? If so, I am very very jealous.


  13. [Hey, I didn’t know I was supposed to reply to my responses!]

    Well, it’s not like you’re supposed to, but I’ve found that the most engaging blogs are those where the author sets out their thoughts for the day/week/whatever and then engages in the follow-up discussion that the readers have concerning those thoughts. In that way the initial monologue becomes a dialogue.

    I’ve seen those dialogues grow and take on a very interesting life of their own.

    Your audience here is obviously intelligent, articulate and eager to read and comment. Seems to me to be a great opportunity to see what can happen.

    (As for the Innocence Mission, their first CD remains my favorite. They’re a husband, wife and brother group from Hershey, PA that still sing in their own home church from time to time.)

  14. Yay Innocence Mission! I second (or third?) that recommendation (my personal favorite of theirs is GLOW).

    And as for Thich Nhat Hanh, my old therapist introduced me to him. I love his line “We’re good at planning to live, but not particularly good at living.”

  15. popscholar wrote:

    “Yay Innocence Mission! I second (or third?) that recommendation (my personal favorite of theirs is GLOW)”

    “Glow” was my favorite album from ’95. Great pop, by far their best writing, and crisp sounding production light years beyond their first two albums. There’s an eerie otherworldly sense of the supernatural in some of their best songs, as for instance “Happy the End.”


  16. Someone wrote Being at your concerts is like going to church. It’s that feeling when people sing all together — even when it’s just you and Katryna.This is more true for me than I can even put into words. I have come to realize that spirituality for me is not about believing in a higher power, but believing in people. Singing in a group of people, friends or strangers, at any sort of folk concert sends chills up my spine and makes me feel more at home than I ever felt in any church I’ve been to. This is what Falcon Ridge does to me. It is a religious retreat weekend. This is why I bawl during the closing song every year. I feel so loved and so full of hope, that I don’t need to believe in anything but the people around me.


  17. I agree with what Nichole said. Oftentimes my “higher power” is the people around me, and even more often than that, it is nature. I believe in God/Goddess/HigherPower, but probably in a different way than most people do. I believe the whole universe is God…that means you, me….the oceans…that tree over there… the sky…and most certainly my cat 🙂 People have come in and out of my life and taught me lessons that oftentimes I have not learned till years later when I was open to the learning. I have come to the realization that everyone I meet has something to teach me, if I am open to it. When we view the universe as being God, we naturally do our best to take care of it, and all the people and beings that live within it… for it is all very sacred. To see the god/goddess in the people we meet is to witness a light that shines within us all. For people who are depressed, that light can almost feel like it’s going out…but it is always there, even if it feels like it’s down to a flicker. That light is hope…and sometimes when it grows dim, it just needs a little help to grow…but it is always there, and it is an amazing thing to see/experience in eachother.

    I am enjoying your Blog Nerissa, it is thought & smile provoking 🙂

    ~ April

    “There is always hope”


  18. Your choice of “Song of the Soul” to sing at church delights me. On my own blog, I have a design I change seasonally with pictures of my home/family at the top and a small bit of lyrics that speak to me deeply for whatever phase of life I’m experiencing. For over two years, through every change, the lyrics I chose were always yours. But last month when I redesigned I decided to use a line from “Song of the Soul” instead. I would love to hear you sing it.

    I am really enjoying your blog.


  19. Nerissa,

    It’s interesting that you were so nervous to lead the music at your church, but you’re not when you perform professionally. I am a civil engineer, and while I have no qualms about making recommendations to my clients, when my friends ask me how to fix a foundation problem at their house, I worry terribly that they will do what I tell them to do and it won’t work. It’s not that I don’t have confidence in my engineering judgment, but because I know my friends on a personal level (as opposed to a professional level), I worry about how my advice will affect them. I don’t mean to make it sound as if I care any less for my clients, but since they generally don’t know me personally, the outcome of my advice doesn’t affect their personal opinion of me. Does that make sense?

    I am very happy that you’ve found a faith community. I belong to a ‘small church community’ and I feel that my faith is that much more alive because of the relationships I have formed in that group. Of course, as others have pointed out, community doesn’t have to be religious in nature.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful blog entry, and thanks to everyone who has posted comments – I’ve enjoyed reading them!

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