There and Back Again: Holy, Holy, Holy

Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. Chicago. 2009.

Sunday Flooding

Sunday in church I cried. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, I don’t think. But this past Sunday, as our congregation sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” tears rolled down my face as if I were chopping onions. Or grieving.

I was grieving.

As a child, my sister and I attended Sunday School while our parents worshiped in the sanctuary. One Sunday, when I was quite small, I found myself in the sanctuary with my mother. I’m sure my father was there, too, and my big sister. But what I remember is sitting beside my mom.

It felt dark inside, and very, very big, like the downtown movie theater where I couldn’t wear my pjs, as I could at the drive-in. It looked like a place that should smell musty, but it didn’t. Baskets of lavender flowers decorated the place in front where the lectern stood. Streams of blue, yellow, and red sunshine flowed through the stained-glass windows and puddled on the carpet inside. People entered and took seats all around us, sitting quietly. I smoothed my blue flowered dress–my favorite dress–and studied my black patent leather shoes as my feet dangled from the wooden bench. I remember being glad the bench had a backrest.

I turned to my mother to ask a question. She raised a finger to her lips with that I mean it look on her face. “Worship begins when we sit down,” she whispered. Her warning made me nervous. Worship? I was there to worship? What was worship? How would I know what to do? I edged in closer to my mother’s protective side.

A man in a robe stood in the front and said something in grown-up words that I couldn’t follow.

And then, and then….

Music flooded the temple as the organist began to play. The choir rose, like a wave above the sea, to its feet. My mother took a book from the little shelf built into the back of the bench in front of us, thumbed through its pages. Everyone stood. Mom stood. So I stood too.

She held that book down low, tracing each word with her fingers as we began to sing:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! 

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee; 

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! 

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

And as we sang the words, the organ welling and the choir streaming and my mother’s sweet high-school-choir voice pouring out from her beside me, I wasn’t afraid any more. I still wasn’t sure exactly what “worship” was, but if this singing was part of it, I was going to like it. 

Of all my childhood memories of church, this one stands vividly above the rest.

Not long ago we took our seven-year-old grandson, Ayden, to church. I bent down, held the hymnal, and traced the words for him as we sang. And I remembered a little girl in black patent shoes and a blue flowered dress, beside her mother, following that trustworthy fingertip from word to word. 

I think I caught a glimpse of her, standing close to her mother. 

1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! 2 I will praise the LORD while I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 

Psalm 146:1-2 (NASB) 

This post came to me after I read my friend Jennifer Lee’s post, Why We Cry When We Sing. So I’m linking up for Charity Singleton’s fine project, There and Back Again. I hope you’ll visit both blogs.

There and Back Again


  1. This post is so beautiful. Chills ran down my spine as I read the words Holy, Holy, Holy as you were singing with your mother – – I was there too! How glorious!

  2. Thanks, Hazel, for slipping into the sanctuary with Mom and me.

  3. The movie theatre where you couldn't wear your pajamas–beautiful! I could see you there, next to your mother, swinging your legs and inspecting your Mary Jane's. A beautiful picture.

  4. Thanks, Nancy. We usually went to the drive-in, you see. But I do remember going to the theater where I couldn't wear pjs for The Sound of Music.

  5. Lovely, lovely… I could see you sitting there in your blue flowered dress… such a beautiful little girl. I'm so glad she's still around. =)

  6. Thanks, Patricia. She's terribly shy, you know. Doesn't come out often. 🙂

  7. Carolyn Counterman

    How lovely. That made me remember when Mama would play Trust and Obey on the piano. And then she would play the Tennessee Waltz. She never would tell me why her favorite song was about losing a love.

  8. Our mamas kept their own secrets, didn't they, Carolyn?

  9. Jennifer @

    Just beautiful, Sheila. Maybe I should do another post: "Why I Cry When I Read" … 🙂

    I was right there with you. And I'm singing it with you, right here and now.

  10. I hope they were a good kind of tears, Jennifer. Those music-good kind.

    Funny thing about this. Did you ever find a long-forgotten necklace in the dark corner of a drawer, one you loved? This memory was like that for me.

    When we were planning Mom's memorial, and we started to talk about songs, the first hymn that came to my mind was "Holy, holy, holy." Then the memory just flooded up behind it.


    Lovely memory. There's something majestic about that song that, even at a young age, recognizes what "Worship" means. You discovered it, there with your Mom.

  12. Thanks, Bradley.

    "Majestic." That's the word.

    It also had some unfamiliar words for me to puzzle over. Seraphim. Cherubim. Trinity.

    I still puzzle over the Trinity.

  13. I love worship songs….that is one of my favorites.

  14. Me too, Thauna.

    Me too.

  15. Sandra Heska King

    Oh, so beautiful. I love how you remembered so many details. This was a sacred read.

  16. Thanks, Sandy. That means so much to me. Especially from you. Especially now.