Remember What God Has Done

Marble’s Banquet and Ball:1997

an excerpt from the 2020 August Corner Blog Post

I was surprised to receive the elaborate invitation to what would be my very first Banquet & Ball. I was half-way through my Junior Year of High-School and suffered from a crippling inability to relate to women. I was determined not to date until I was able to support a family and managed the ensuing loneliness with ruthless social isolation. This resulted in an inability to so much as carry on a conversation with girls. The foolish maxim “Thou Shalt Not Date” was embraced and loudly espoused by Jared Bower, the Grand Master of frumpery, and my friends, too wise to fight a fool, allowed me my silly counterfeit virtue. But then, as is often the case, loneliness began to haunt my day dreams and I began to sense that something was amiss. You can easily understand, then, why the prospect of a ball, where I danced with women all night, both frightened and excited me. I accepted the invitation.

I will never forget the first dance. I was wearing a mismatched, ill fitting suit and had a justifiable conviction that I would prove tedious to dance with. The ballroom was a rustic, fragrant old church. It featured creaking plywood floors, a large steel drum stove, and elaborate decorations that filled the sanctuary with the scent of evergreens. Wax candles illuminated the many windows of the rectangular room and the sound of murmured conversation drifted down from the balcony where parents, in their Sunday Best, snapped pictures with disposable cameras. I approached a young woman who stood rigid with formality, excitement, and fear. I bowed, made eye contact, and asked “may I have this dance?”

She curtsied with slow deliberation but didn’t respond, instead, taking my outstretched hand and, stepping with me through the press of young men, she accompanied me to the middle of the floor. The young woman, a lovely creature, knew how to dance. I did not. Somehow, it didn’t matter. After the music ceased we bowed to one another, then to another couple, then to each other again. I escorted her to “the women’s side,” bowed one last time, and returned to my compatriots. I was thunderstruck on the walk back across the now empty dance floor. My preconceived notions of morality, many of which I was utterly unaware of until this very moment, vanished in the face of an ancient and profound absolute.

I was unable to ponder the implications of this new dimension which had somehow become visible to my stupid imagination as there was an entire night of awe that couldn’t be neglected. The men were nervously looking at their ornate dance cards, trying to discern which of the young women on the far wall matched the name on their second dance. A portly, kindly fellow was my particular friend on this occasion. We had split wood together the day before, and while I couldn’t tell him apart from his twin brother, he was happy to help a stranger discern which of the five Sarah’s in attendance was the “Sarah W.” who was my next dance.  “You see the fourth girl to the right of the stove, in the blue dress? Sarah is standing behind her left shoulder…no, the other one.”

We were interrupted by Ryan, a tall, handsome young man, who also needed help. “Hey, Drewski,” said the newcomer, addressing my guide in a muted tone, “which one is  ‘Sarah A.’?” Drewski peered with a concentrated squint. Then, rolling to the balls of his feet, he extended his neck for the few precious inches needed to see over the heads of the women across the room, surveying the back row. “She is the one wearing the shawl, talking to the girl in the green dress…no the other girl in green.” Ryan thanked him and strode across the room. I hung back until the other men had winnowed the options, then stepped forward.

There were three women to every two men. The women who were without dances would stand near the black wood-stove on their side of the room. The women seldom went more than one song without a dance, but the men, with their woolen suit jackets and blazers, danced every dance. The resulting perspiration soaked through their shirts. During the breaks between dance sets they would step outside the venue’s main entrance and, whipping off their coats, sigh with relief as the steam billowed off their shoulders into the bitter, freezing December night. There was a sense of quiet, excited joy in the air. I remember a young man who was called Fitz taking a handful of snow and rubbing the back of his neck while exclaiming “can’t we let the stove burn out?” Ryan and Dan agreed that the heat had grown oppressive, but the fire would burn merrily throughout the ball, regardless of the men’s discomfort.

The last two dances of the ball were solemn and rife with sweet-sadness. The Ball finished with various batches of friends exiting in groups, chatting in hushed tones,  wishing it wasn’t over, excited to share what they had just experienced.

At the end of the night the only souls left in the building were the knot of volunteers who were slated for clean up. The lights were turned on, the candles extinguished, and an alt-rock playlist was cranked overhead. The mop buckets were brought up from the basement, the simple green and the windex, brooms and Hefty bags were made available to the crew who, while still in formal attire, scoured the floors, emptied the garbages, took down the tables, and dispersed the stacked chairs — arranging them for the Sunday Service. I would finish up by four in the morning, my shirt yellow with sweat, my feet sore from the dancing. 

It seems odd that, nearly twenty-three years later, I would be able to remember and forget so much. I took careful notes throughout the entire weekend, hoping to hold on to every possible detail of the event so that I could deconstruct and reconstruct the procedure in my hometown. Here is a sample: “We ate a four course meal: salad, soup, Chicken Cordon Bleu, and a Chocolate Confection. Coffee and Tea were available, and we loaded up in Suburbans after the Banquet to get to the Ballroom.” When I look back at my notes, I can’t help but smile. I genuinely thought that the menu was somehow important to my experience. As if Chicken Cordon Bleu was some kind of key to the lock.

But what I found on the way back to my compatriots was the ancient and profound absolute that the immoral was pent up in it’s own twisted tree, bound by bark, propagated by poisoned fruit, utterly incapable of tasting true selfless love. Narcissism kills the senses, twists all things to serve the lust and shame and sickness. So much so, that it is only by imagining deeper perversions that lust can be temporarily slaked.

But if the immoral be a twisted tree, the moral is a profound orchard impossible to savor in its entirety. Creation stands and beckons her steward to partake in the adventure that exists outside of self-gratification. The adventure that requires self-denial, self-sacrifice, and, ultimately, the laying down of one’s life for another.

We find the clue to this in the day dreams of children. The boy slays the Dragon, rescues the Princess, and restores justice. The girl is pursued, wooed, and, in the company of the beloved, carries the day over and against overwhelming odds. How is it that so many of these dreams are buried? The simple fact that abuse and despair exist, that very few women are born to a royal family, that there are no physical dragons – these things disabuse young people of their day dreams, myself included.

But by the time I reached the far side of the room and retrieved from my waistcoat the dance card, I had been changed. Not that I was free of immoral desires, far from it. It was a looking up from trying to do no wrong. I was gaining a Hope. A Hope that asserted I could win. That I could enjoy life, and that abundantly. That this obsession with sinlessness wasn’t all there was to a moral life. On the contrary, I was convinced that we win by cultivating our taste. By imagining, creating, and savoring a life of self-sacrifice. Hope can do terrible things. Beautiful but terrible things. Hope makes you feel joy and pain, disappointment and ecstasy, conflict and resolution, loss and gain. This moral imagination demanded that I relish the beauty in all this, to the glory of God. And, having embraced this Hope, I look to the Dragons…the Powers and Principalities…as the great adventure I was made for.