I had just arrived and was putting my purse in the closet when Helen, altar guild captain of the week, clasped her hands together implying a gearing-up to share news with the four of us in the altar guild room. “Now that we’re all here I need to tell you what the deacon found last Sunday morning—a bloody bat wing in the sanctuary and blood splattered on the altar cover. Maybe it was sleeping on a fan blade? The rest of the bat hasn’t been found. I’ve looked high and low. Let me know if you see any evidence out there today.”
It might surprise you to know how unsurprising this bloody news was to us. I’ve spent most Saturday mornings this summer with my parish altar guild as an unofficial intern. You wouldn’t believe how often the topic of bats comes up. Every week in some form or other it’s another round of altar guild vs. bats here in our big old church. One Saturday in May when I knew very little about the sacramental vessels and linens I asked why a purificator was placed over the bowl of counted wafers. “I’m not sure,” said a guild member, “but probably because of the bats.” Hang with this crowd for a while and the stories will keep you coming back.
Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you about all this bat business. It seems altar guilds do have secret society tendencies. They keep to themselves for the most part, dutifully showing up when no one else is around to do tasks that only get noticed if they aren’t done or are done incorrectly. With gentle and quiet pleasure they arrive early Saturday mornings with fresh flowers from the farmers market (or Costco) for the high altar vases. While the sleepy Episco-verse lounges its early weekend away, these folks count and dispense wafers, funnel wine into cruets, take inventory of supplies with sharp pencils in tidy notebooks, and take home linens to launder and press.
Other than some pandemic adjustments, few things about the job have changed over the decades. What keeps these people coming back to serve this way year after year? There are few lay ministries in parish life for which the reasons for simple household-type actions can be so directly: because God is holy. This is one of them and perhaps that has something to do with it.
Debbie, an altar guild team captain who is now convalescing after a back surgery to straighten her spine, has been part of this group since 1982. I was a toddler that year. Many of these women started serving with their mothers, carrying on this work in their memory. But before we get too sentimental about that, let’s remember that with traditions done “the way we’ve always done it,” there’s potential for tension with new ideas.
There is mutual appreciation and respectful gratitude between our clergy and altar guild, but also some spiritual sibling rivalry. I attended around 150 staff meetings as a part-time social media guru at this parish. It was not uncommon to hear the priest say with an exasperated sigh and roll of the eye, “Uh! The altar guild.” I know he longs to ditch the wafers and use real bread, but this would completely throw the altar guild’s preparation for communion off kilter and so we stick with wafers. Often on Saturdays now I’ll hear, “Uh! Father Paul!” regarding serving-ware confusion, or handwritten notes about tweaks in procedure. At such times I give God a wink and a nudge and we laugh about it on the way home.
What an honor it must be to make liturgy possible, to know your gifts of time and skill are critical to God’s way in the world—to God’s chosen mode of dwelling with us as God’s people. It’s essential work indeed and like so many altar guilds everywhere they need more help. Understandably, they’re concerned about the workload on their aging minds and bodies. In the meantime I believe there must be a special provisional blessing God gives altar guilds. Nothing else can explain how these strong-yet-delicate women—even with step stools and hooks and tools—are able to not only do the very physical job of hoisting the pulley wheeled sanctuary lamps back up after replacing the candles, but to also not break themselves or the heavy glass cylinder sheath that’s less-than-very-secure. How they do this when my freakishly long go-go gadget arms are not around must be attributed to either angelic intervention or bat assistance. None of the ladies can tell me how exactly they do it. Yet every week they get it done. Always the candles are burning. Much is shrouded in blessed mystery!