My father said when he walked into his father’s church after they came back from the army the first thing he saw was a piece of needlework hanging on the wall above the communion table. It was very beautifully done, flowers and flames surrounding the words ‘The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire.’ I suppose that is why I always think of my grandfather’s church as the one struck by lightning. As in fact it was.
My father said it was that banner that had sent him off to sit with the Quakers. He said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was, ‘purifying,’ and the thought that those women could believe the world was in any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him. He stood there looking at it, visibly displeased by it, apparently, because one of the women said to him, ‘It’s just a bit of Scripture.’
He said, ‘I beg your pardon, ma’am. No, that is not Scripture.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘then it certainly ought to be.’
And of course that was terrible to his mind, that she could have thought such a thing. And yet if those precise words don’t occur in the Bible, there are passages they could be said to summarize fairly well. That may have been all she meant.
I have always wished I could have seen it, that tapestry they made, if that’s what it was. He said there were cherubim to either side of it, with their wings thrown forward the way they are in the old pictures, and then, where the Ark of the Covenant would have been, those incendiary words, and flowers and flames around them and above them. I don’t know how those women managed to find the material for it, how much snipping and ravelling of their few best clothes they’d have to have done to make such a thing as that. And I’ve always wondered what happened to it. Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. There are some I dearly wish might be spared.
One after another, when those women learned they were widows, they went back to their families in the East. Not all of them, but a good many. Some of them had buried their husbands and their children beside the church, so they felt they couldn’t leave. And some of those who left came back, even years later. Still, that congregation dwindled away finally, and the Methodists bought the land and burned the old building down because it was past saving.
From page 99 of Gilead [a novel], published by Farrar Strauss Giroux 2004