Critical Mass

Preview 2008: Honor Moore’s “The Bishop’s Daughter”

By Jane Ciabattari

This excerpt is from the Prologue to “The Bishop’s Daughter,” a memoir by the poet Honor Moore, to be published in May 2008 by W.W. Norton.

It is Easter, and in the darkness of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine the singing soars in descant, the gothic ceiling multiplying the clamor. And now, as if a great storm has ceased, there is no music, and in the silence held by three thousand worshipers, there come three resounding knocks. And as we wait, the massive doors swing open, an ethereal shaft of sunlight floods the dark, the roar of the city breaks the gigantic quiet, and there at the far end of the aisle, in a blaze of morning light, stands the tall figure of a man. My flesh-and-blood father, the bishop.

When I was a child, I accepted my father as a force of imagination that flared and burst and coruscated, an instrument of transformation. During World War II, he had survived a Japanese bullet and had a scar to prove it. “If my heart had been going this way instead of that,”he announced once, rowing me across the lake in the Adirondacks, “you would never have existed!” Remembering his saying that now, I am startled. It was a joke of course, but it was also the text of a lesson that endured throughout our life together. My father had supernatural powers. His fate had determined my existence. I was something he had made and would continue to make. Physical independence from my physical parents was one thing–I got too big to hold my mother’s hand, too big to ride on my father’s shoulders–but it took me decades to escape the enchantment of my father’s priesthood.

On Sundays and feast days, he became a giant in resplendent brocades lifting his arms as he preached. Or on Easter as a child, I am bedecked in my new finery, and there he is, dressed in white, accompanied by vested acolytes, sweeping along the dusty street on his way to the church; I get not a kiss but a blessing–his hand raised, fingers poised and moving through the air in the shape of a cross. At my father's first parish, the church was right next door; going to church was not a duty but a chance to be with the deepest part of him, to be inside his imagination. In the darkness at the altar rail, I would hold the wafer in my mouth, allowing it to become wet with the wine that burned down my throat. Take, eat, this is my body, my father would say. Just as I came to understand his splendid vestments were not ordinary clothes, I learned that during the Eucharist, the bread and wine were shot through with something otherworldly, something alive that vibrated and trembled, and when I watched my father, enormously tall, the color of his vestments blurry through all the incense in all the candlelight, it seemed to me he brought all this about, up there at the altar, enswirled in the fragrant smoke, the organ thundering, his voice carried by the King James language. It therefore made sense that when he sang Gregorian chant his voice would break and falter. He was being transported by what he called “the presence of God,” a force much more powerful than his physical body. What happened to him seemed also to happen in me, behind my eyes, on the surface of my skin, and when it happened, I didn't think of how my mother looked with a baby on her hip, how my younger brothers and sisters screamed, or how awkward I felt at school. Instead, everything became comprehensible–simple, safe, and beautiful.

After the service, after removing the gold and the colors, after lifting the tiny white wafer as high as his long arms could reach, after administering wine at the altar rail and drinking what remained in the consecrated chalice, my father came home. Now wearing his black suit, he burst into the living room, where we all waited, the grownups drinking sherry, joking or talking seriously. I would run to him and he would bend and give me a kiss before going to talk to the others. Dressed in ordinary black clericals and the stiff white collar, he looked almost like other humans, quite normal, though taller than everyone else.