by Christie Shumate McElwee
Last week I heard part of an interview with Marc Cohn, the singer/songwriter who wrote “Walking in Memphis,” a song with one of my favorite lyrics, “Tell me are you a Christian, child?” “And I said, ‘M’am, I am tonight.’” He spoke about the spiritual experience he had during that visit to Memphis when he was in a low place in his life. “Bluer than a boy can be.” He attended Rev. Al Green’s church, sat down to play piano with Muriel at The Hollywood, and spotted the ghost of Elvis walking up to Graceland. His walk through Memphis changed him. He was asked by the interviewer how he reflected upon this so-called “Christian” experience as a Jew. Cohn responded, explaining that spiritual experiences don’t have to be about religion. They can come from something or somewhere or someone that touches our hearts and lifts us off the ground. “Was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale.”
I began to ponder my own spiritual experiences, none of which have centered around church or scripture or organized religion.
Last winter on a frigid January morning, I drove out to the bird sanctuary to see the eagles. When I got there, I saw not just one or two, but over a hundred bald eagles, huddled on the ice. I could spot birds sitting in trees, grabbing fish from holes in the ice, and a few soaring through the air. I couldn’t breathe, it was all so beautiful. I remember texting a friend, sharing with her what I was seeing. I had my binoculars, but I only took a few photos because an iPhone picture wouldn’t have captured the awe, the sheer wildness of it all.
Eight years ago my son Jack and I went out to San Diego to visit my oldest son Christopher and his girlfriend (now wife) Kaitlin. On one of the last nights of our visit they took us to a sushi place in La Jolla and after dinner we wandered close to the water. They said we needed to walk out to this peninsula where the sea lions slept. In the darkness, Jack and I tiptoed down and stood among these snoring beings. We were so close we could smell their breath but saw only shadows. We looked at each other and knew we had shared a sacred moment together on that California coastline.
Sometimes my husband and I have these perfect weekends. Nothing is planned or scheduled. We may eat breakfast out, take a long walk, listen to music as we sip wine and prepare dinner. Simple things. Joyous moments. Spiritual in its lack of anything momentous. We don’t go looking for it, life just hands us something intangible and pure.
I’ve experienced it in books, when I read words that catch my breath with their beauty and truth. I find myself gasping and placing my hand over my heart, hoping to hold onto the moment, the clarity of the prose, the gift the author gave me.
After a spring trip down to Gulf Shores a few years ago, I talked my husband into taking a detour so I could see Monroeville, Alabama, the childhood home of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. As I sat up in the courthouse balcony, I could hear Reverend Sykes telling Scout, “Miss Jean Louise? Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.’” And I could see Atticus walking down the aisle, head up, knowing he would have to explain difficult truths to his children. It was probably one of the most spiritual moments I have had in my life, sitting in that recreated courthouse, hearing the voices of fictional characters swirling through my head.
“Tell me are you a Christian, child?” “And I said, ‘M’am, I am tonight.’” To me, this lyric isn’t about religion. Marc Cohn, instead, wrote about how certain moments in our lives bring us closer to what we can’t explain. The wonder. The mysterious. The divine. Some of us may find them sitting in church, yet mine have always been outside those walls, on cold days or warm beaches or in the pages of my favorite books. I have discovered unexpected sacred spaces, and I am grateful for their gifts of authenticity and grace and astonishment.
“M’am, I am tonight.”