Anne Before the Lord

Back to Issue 11

by Kayla Beth Moore


Father Joseph was made very uncomfortable by the idea of Anne dancing in church. She came by his office on a Tuesday afternoon just as he was finishing his fourth cup of coffee. She sat straight-backed in the chair opposite his desk, folded her hands on her lap, closed her eyes, and was quiet.

“Is there something I can help you with today, Anne?”

She opened her eyes.

“Father, the Lord has burdened my heart with a very specific calling.”

Father Joseph knew a lot about the burdensome nature of the Lord’s business.

“Okay. Do you know what it is?”

“Yes. The Lord would like me to dance before him in the presence of our congregation. May I please perform a liturgical dance in an upcoming service?”

This was not what he expected Anne’s burdensome calling to be. Anne was a scientist, a PhD student at the university studying cardiological abnormalities in large, non-human primates. It struck Father Joseph that in spite of this, Anne often employed the metaphorical use of the word “heart.”

“You know there’s great precedent in scripture for the holiness of dance, and for God’s pleasure in it. David you know—”

“Yes.” Father Joseph interrupted more abruptly than he meant.

“David danced before the ark of the covenant as it was carried into Jerusalem. He was also naked, Anne.”

“I won’t be naked.”

“Good! Good,” Father Joseph said, more enthusiastically than he meant. This begged an obvious question.

“What would you wear?”

“Something modest. I imagine a long flowing skirt and something that will allow for generous movement in my arms.” Anne lifted her arms over her head and lowered them slowly, one at a time, until they were extended at her side. She held them there for a moment before folding her hands again calmly.

This left Father Joseph at a loss. There were too many questions at once. He eyed his now empty coffee mug and tried to decide how to approach this.

“What kind of music would you dance to?”

“A hymn. Or an instrumental. I can coordinate with the music minister.”

“Yes, that would be necessary,” he said. “Do you…” Father Joseph didn’t know how to phrase the next question. “Do you dance in non-liturgical contexts? That is, are you an experienced dancer?”

“I have been taking an adult ballet class downtown for three weeks. We have a recital in the spring.”

“Ah. You must be enjoying that?”

“It has shown me the ways in which human bodies can participate in the rhythms of grace.”

Father Joseph didn’t know if she meant the class had revealed her body’s grace to her, or if she meant something else, perhaps something more theological. It was a rule of his that things should be taken as literally as possible, until they can no longer be taken literally at all.

“So this would be ballet-like? Ballet-esque, say?”

“It will be interpretive, guided by the music and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

“Right. Right.” Father Joseph trailed off. There was only one tack available to him, one which he always kept in his pocket for when he needed to buy himself some time.

“You know, Anne, I really appreciate you coming by today. I am glad to hear of your desire to please the Lord, but I need to pray about this. I will probably also have to ask the Bishop for permission.”

“Is that necessary, Father? The Bishop’s permission, I mean.”

“Well, you know I’ll tell you something, Anne. I’m not exactly his favorite. And if word were to get back to him that we’ve stepped outside the realm of… certain liturgical norms, he might have something to say about it.”

“I see. Well, whatever must be done to maintain unity and order in the body of Christ.”

“Thank you for understanding, Anne.”


Father Joseph thought he’d gotten used to dealing with weird people, but sometimes he was forced to remember that everyone is weird in a very particular way, and that new weirdnesses can develop on any given day given certain circumstances. Dancing in church? The whole thing seemed way too embarrassing. He was sure there were non-denominational churches all across America doing all manner of lurid dance on Sunday mornings, but Episcopalians? Anne in a hippie getup swaying before the altar. Anne in a hippie getup swaying, facing the congregation? Both options seemed bad. It wasn’t the thought of Anne gyrating her bits that scared him. He knew she wouldn’t be sexual in her dancing. Father Joseph was confident he’d seen more Shakira videos than Anne. The risk was the earnestness of the performance. The risk was humiliation: Anne’s for doing it, his for letting her, and everyone else’s for being made to watch. Their Sunday services were already short on decorum and respectability, what with barely literate scripture readers, the out-of-tune piano, and the paltry choir in their shabby robes who fell into an absolute din anytime they came to a high-C alleluia. People were just too weird. It was just such a very weird church.

Father Joseph vacillated between loving and hating this about his congregation. His calling had come to him in middle age. He’d known for decades that something noble beyond his basic capabilities was required of him, and he’d groped around for what it might be, trying and failing at various professions for years: bartender, English teacher, plumber, HVAC technician. The ministry had always been there as an idea he was loath to consider. What hubris must be required to stand before your fellow people on a Sunday morning when everyone would rather be sleeping and declare, “Thus saith the Lord!” he thought. But one day he was in the backyard reading Middlemarch. He got to the part where the dutiful Dr. Lydgate goes home early after a party and considers how lucky he is to be a doctor. He got to the part where Dr. Lydgate thinks, “I should never have been happy in any profession that did not call forth the highest intellectual strain, and yet keep me in good warm contact with my neighbors. There is nothing like the medical profession for that: one can have the exclusive scientific life that touches the distance and befriend the old fogies in the parish too.”

As he read this, the blood fell from Joseph’s face and his limbs became heavy. The air around him grew thick and still, as if he could swim in it if he could only kick his feet. His heart raced as he watched a squirrel jump the fence into the neighbor’s yard, all of which was backlit by an absurd, firebrand sunset. In that moment he recognized that the distance had had him by the throat his whole life, and not in a scientific way, and that the old fogies in the parish were to be his very own.


Later in the evening Father Joseph went to visit Harley, who lived in a third-floor apartment just down the street from the church. From the street he could see Harley’s arched window seat, which was stacked so thoroughly with books that most of the window was blocked. He rang the doorbell and the downstairs occupant answered. Father Joseph greeted Mrs. Paige.

“How’s the attic hobbit?”

“We never know honestly. I mean to check on him, but with the kids running around and dinner and dishes and laundry, the evenings just disappear.”

“I understand.” Father Joseph considered that if he lived below Harley he would probably forget about him, too.

The wail of a small baby resounded through the open door where they stood.

“Sounds like you’re being beckoned.”

“Indeed. Gotta run. Say hi to him for us.”

Father Joseph ascended the narrow stairs past the foyer. Halfway up he found the stairs littered with groceries: a box of crackers, a bag of carrots, a pack of tissues. A pit opened in Father Joseph’s stomach. He picked up the items hurriedly and took two steps at a time to Harley’s door, which he knocked on furiously, calling for the old man.

“Coming!” was the cranky and distant reply. “Calm down, you!”

Father Joseph sighed out his relief.

“Grocery delivery,” he said when Harley finally reached the door.

“Oh yes! I meant to go and fetch those and I completely forgot.”

“When did you go for groceries?”

“Hm. Friday I suppose.”

“That’s four days ago!

“I forgot, alright. I would have gotten them if I remembered.”

Father Joseph knew from the beginning that it was a terrible idea for Harley to move into that third-floor apartment. But the place he’d rented for twelve years on the east side of town was all of a sudden condemned, and Harley said this was the only place in his budget that was available and could fit all his books. In fact, when you walked in, the books were all you saw. Stacked from floor to ceiling, they took up most of the main room and the bedroom.

The landlord hadn’t wanted to rent the place to Harley. While Harley’s brain was clear as a bell, he suffered from a blood disease that gave him terrible aches and rendered his legs unreliable. Father Joseph had gone with Harley to view the place. It took him several minutes to ascend the stairs, and he’d hung on pretty closely to Father Joseph. When they got to the top, Harley thought it was the nicest apartment he’d ever seen in his life. All this light, all this room, he kept saying. After the viewing, the landlord called Father Joseph and told him someone else was interested, a college student at the university who could sign a three-year lease. Father Joseph reminded the landlord in no uncertain terms that it was illegal to refuse to rent to a person based on their disability and dropped the name of a certain, prominent lawyer in his congregation. Harley signed for the place the next day.

The two of them sat down in the living room. Harley offered him a beer.

“How are you carrying packs of beer up here?”

“Not packs. One in each pocket.”

They laughed.

When he first arrived at the parish, Father Joseph hadn’t cared very much for Harley. Harley hosted a parish book group that seemed to Father Joseph like a barnacle on the church’s programmatic calendar. They had been reading Augustine’s Confessions for three years and had only made it to book ten. One day Father Joseph worked up the courage to talk to Harley one-on-one about the boring and ill-attended book group. He didn’t know how else to put it, and so he decided to be candid. Or perhaps he was already weary of his work, or he’d been at the hospital late into the night with one of the many elderly parishioners, or perhaps he was just a crude person who had been dragged by the proverbial collar into this town and the lives of its people and didn’t know yet how to talk to them let alone be their priest.

He said to Harley: “Look, don’t you think it’s time to give this up.”

Harley was quiet for a minute, a long minute in which Father Joseph was sure he’d destroyed this frail man’s feelings.

“So you’re sweeping up around here, huh?”

“I don’t mean to—”

“Honestly, praise God. I’m sick of that book. And I’m sick of Roger coming in every week heating up his stinking leftovers in the kitchen and eating them during our discussion.”

“That’s why it smells like kimchi in there?”

“Yes, and God knows what else.”

“I assumed it was you.”

“Well, no wonder it took you this long to talk to me.”

Since then Harley had been one of the few friends to whom Father Joseph could speak plainly. His good humor and warmth were unflagging and he was extraordinarily well-read for a former tax accountant. One of their favorite subjects of conversation was the doctrine of the bondage of the will, a concept that habitually plagued Father Joseph’s faith in the Lord God. He could not think of himself, or of others, as wind-up monkeys who clanged their plastic symbols and marched just and only as they were designed.

“How’s the work of the Lord today?” Harley asked.

“Anne came by. She wants to do a liturgical dance during a Sunday service.”

“Well, you know David—”

“Yes, I know about David.”

“And you don’t want her to.”

“It sounds so embarrassing. I know Anne doesn’t care what people think.”

“But you do?”

 “Sure. No. I mean, I care enough that I can recognize how awful it would be for her and for everybody else. It would be like watching really bad karaoke, except without the campy lights, and the performer would be dead serious.”

“I’d be pretty flattered if Anne wanted to dance before me.”

“Well you’re a man. Don’t you think that’s why? And God doesn’t need flattering.”

“Doesn’t he? He sure seems to ask for an awful lot of praise?”

“Praise isn’t flattery.”

“How are they different? Both are showy. Both make the person giving them smaller.”

“Praise is rooted in respect. Flattery is always… excessive. And besides, think of how small Anne would feel if she got up in front of everybody and…. and… I don’t even know what she would do exactly.”

“You’d feel pretty small, too, I guess. Look, the thing about David dancing was that he didn’t care about being humiliated. He was a king and he took all of his clothes off and let fly because his body could barely contain his praise. His praise pressed against his epidermis with such force that flinging around naked was all that was left for him to do. And besides, love is always humiliating.”

Father Joseph looked at his hands. He hadn’t thought of the word “epidermis” in a long time.

“If you think it would be an actual, real disgrace then say no.”

“I’m going to ask the Bishop.”

“So he can say no.”


“Is he still mad at you for trying to run your Thursday soup kitchen without a food license?”

“Yeah. Probably.”

Before Father Joseph left, he asked if Harley would like a ride down the street for church on Sunday.

“It’s your favorite, Palm Sunday. I’ll save you some steps so you can use them for the procession.”

Every Palm Sunday the cops blocked off traffic to the block around the church, and the congregation made a small procession around the neighborhood, singing hymns and waving palm fronds. Sometimes they had a trumpeter. It was a tradition that preceded Father Joseph and everyone loved it so much he hadn’t tried to axe it.

“Oh yes! The Annual Praise Parade of Parish Fools. Gets me every time. I’ll call you Friday and let you know.”


On Wednesday Father Joseph worked up his nerve to call the Bishop. Every time he called the Bishop’s office he expected his secretary, Joan, to have died and been replaced. She was a relic held onto by the diocese for sympathy only, he was sure. It was always a little exciting to see if a new voice would answer the phone, and always a little bittersweet to think that each time he hung up he may have just spoken to Joan for the last time.

“Good morning, Bishop McPhee’s office Joan speaking. This is the day the Lord hath made, how may I help you?” said the brittle voice in her usual greeting.

Bishop McPhee was busy at the moment and would Father Joseph please leave a message. This is just what Father Joseph expected. He was used to the diocesan screening of calls from fringe, low-tithing congregations such as his. That he needed advisement on a matter concerning liturgical dance was the last thing he wanted to have Joan write on a sticky note. He ended up saying it was a private matter and he would appreciate a moment of the Bishop’s time.

When the Bishop did call, he was unhelpful and noticeably frustrated that Father Joseph had imposed upon his time for the sake of such a matter. Father Joseph hoped the Bishop would laugh when he said that a scientist in his congregation who studies cardiological abnormalities in large non-human primates would like very much to perform a liturgical dance during an upcoming service.

The Bishop did not laugh.

“Is this why you called, Father Joseph?”

“Yes. I didn’t know if there might be rules against this kind of thing.”

“No. No rules against liturgical dance. As long as the Mass is celebrated according to all other standards and expectations of the Anglican Communion, then other, ancillary forms of creative expression during worship are up to the discretion of the parish priest.”

“I see.”

“Several churches in the Communion exploit the creative gifts of their congregants in novel ways, especially during Lent, in fact. It is up to you to judge. For myself I’ve seen liturgical dance used quite tastefully. Perhaps she could do it during the offertory. Is that all, Father Joseph?”

“Yes. That was all.”

“Why especially during Lent,” he started to ask, but the Bishop had already hung up.


When Friday evening came and he hadn’t heard from Harley, Father Joseph stopped by the corner market, grabbed a six-pack of Harley’s favorite beer, and went by his place. Mrs. Paige answered the door, this time with the crying baby wriggling in her arms. They exchanged nods and he hopped up the stairs.

Father Joseph hoped Harley could advise him on his next tack with Anne. Harley would know how to tell her no in a graceful way. He also wanted to see what Harley thought about telling Anne she could dance on the lawn outside during the service with the windows open so she could hear the music. Harley would know how to be both kind and correct.

He knocked on the door and waited. There was no answer. He knocked again and more loudly. After the third knock he jiggled the door handle, which turned.

The musty smell of all those books. The sound of flies buzzing around a pan of uneaten spaghetti on the kitchen counter across from the door. The bathroom door ajar. Lights on in the bedroom. Harley his good, good friend face down in the big open room beside his green armchair, squared off in light coming in through the west-facing window.

He touched his neck, but no pulse answered his pressing fingers. He sat down on the floor and rolled his body over, putting his friend’s head in his lap. His ashen skin was cold, and there was a deep gash on his temple. Father Joseph held his friend. He rocked him backward and forward. He told his friend how good he was, how loved.


Father Joseph spent all of Saturday making hurried arrangements. Harley’s only family was a nephew in New York whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. Father Joseph called. The nephew was sad to hear the news and gave Father Joseph permission to move forward with his plans.

He called all the musicians he knew, those from the parish and those outside it. He called those who used to attend the book group, and the rest of Harley’s parish friends. He went to the funeral home and picked out a casket. He paid an extra fee for last-minute grave-digging services. He called the church secretary and directed her to make several adjustments to Sunday’s printed order of service. She asked whether it was appropriate to have a funeral during Palm Sunday worship. What would the Bishop think? Father Joseph informed her that as long as the Mass was celebrated according to all other standards and expectations of the Anglican Communion, then other, ancillary forms of creative expression during worship are up to the discretion of the parish priest.

When he called Anne, she said she would be more than happy to help.


The service began as usual, except that the plain, pine casket sat front and center in front of the altar on a lifted, metal wheel-cart provided by the funeral home.

Once everyone was settled in their seats. Father Joseph came forward and shouted out the invocation: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” the congregation answered.

In the gospel reading, Jesus sends the disciples to fetch a donkey. The disciples bring him the donkey and lay their cloaks on the donkey’s back for Jesus to sit on. Jesus rides like that into Jerusalem. The crowds gather. They lay their cloaks before the donkey, and before Jesus, who rides on the cloak placed on the donkey for his comfort. The crowds follow Jesus and the donkey, cutting limbs from trees and laying them down with more cloaks before the donkey and Jesus’ path. Jesus rides like this into the holy city, while the cries of Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! echo through the dusty streets.

After the gospel reading, Father Joseph read another prayer. He told the people, “On this day Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph, and was proclaimed King of kings by those who spread their garments and branches of palm along the way. Let these branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our King, and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life.”

Every word from Father Joseph’s mouth was full and crisp. This morning the old words, usually spoken in the practiced priestly drone, were vivified. Father Joseph had read this, said this, prayed this, thought this all before, but not with a casket at center stage. Everyone felt the change, the charge, and an air of expectation wafted through the congregation. Babies were hushed and sleepy adults straightened their spines.

The musicians stood. They had been seated with their various horns and strings and drums in the first three pews. Behind them was the ten-member choir in the dingy white robes. Anne stepped forward. She stood facing Harley’s casket, while one trumpeter filled the building with the first notes of the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”

The lone trumpeter played a wordless verse. Everyone remained still. When the other horns joined in, Anne spun slowly around to face the congregation, seeming to turn on only one foot. Her head was bowed. She looked up and motioned for the congregation to rise. Anne lifted her arms and began to sway to one side and then the other. Then she turned, and walked, arms still swaying side to side, to the side chapel door.

The rest of the musicians joined in. The choir began to sing, and the congregation joined the singing. Father Joseph motioned for the pallbearers to come forward. They gathered up front and stood on either side of the casket. At Father Joseph’s nod, they pushed the casket, still on its wheel-cart, toward the side chapel where Anne was exiting onto the lawn.

The band of musicians followed behind them, then the choir joined, and the congregation filed in behind. The singing rose, the congregation’s voices growing in confidence and fullness of breath as they walked, each of them taking a palm frond from Roger who was stationed, bleary-eyed, at the exit.

They were beginning the second verse by the time everyone made it onto the streets. These were instruments that did not suit each other. These were unpracticed singers. These were debtors and philanderers, worriers and usurers, women who hated their mothers, men who disliked their children, all singing a scattered song to a melody only some knew by heart, while before them Anne continued to sway, and the pallbearers continued rolling the pine casket down the middle of Peach St.

People watching from their windows and shopkeepers spying through opened doors, stepped outside to watch. Cyclists and drivers halted by traffic gathered on the sidewalks to take in the Annual Praise Procession of Parish Fools, made new by the presence of their dead friend in the simple casket and by Anne’s dancing.

Anne began to skip from side-to-side. She was smiling and even laughing. Her smiling made the people watching smile. Father Joseph himself was smiling and he recognized the heat in his body and the flush of his face was that of joy. As the music swelled and the instruments clanged, members of the choir and the congregation began to pull friends and strangers into the procession. They shared their orders of service and their palm fronds. As the parade grew, Anne began to clap her hands and twirl and hop and sway from the hips up to her fingertips. They began the song over again from the beginning at the same volume, everyone singing at the top of their lungs, feeling the burning of deep breaths of cool air in their throats.

Some police officers tipped their hats, some of them laughed, one shouted Hosanna! in a mocking voice. The owner of the corner bodega pulled out the buckets of flowers he had for sale and began throwing them into the procession, saying, “For Harley, Thief of Cheap Beer and Reader of Big Books!” He handed them to onlookers, some of whom jumped into the procession.

Father Joseph had no more expectations. He was not thinking or planning what to do next. His mind had come into a hazy calm. He was only singing, singing and watching Anne float from one side of the street to the other. She did not slow as they rounded the block toward the cemetery, with its mound of fresh dirt piled in the southeast corner. Anne’s arms began moving wildly and her head hung loose. She had abandoned all bodily grace, all awareness of herself. The singing came to an end, but the musicians blew and plucked and beat their cacophonous hymn on and on. She bent over at the hips and swung her torso, making wide circles with her head. The musicians slowed one-by-one until only a lone guitarist continued the song.

Anne turned toward the casket and reached her hands out as if she would touch it, but she began to sway again, gently side to side. Then Anne crossed her arms and stopped swaying. Slowly, she lifted her grey, loose sweater over her head and laid it down in front of the casket. She stepped back and stood away from the gate. Her frizzy hair hung loose, not quite long enough to cover her bra. Her breasts rose and fell with her heavy breathing and her face was flushed and sweaty. Then Father Joseph stepped forward and awkwardly pulled his cassock over his head. He laid it down behind Anne’s sweater.

The musicians lay down their instruments. The congregation lay down their orders of service. Soon there was a line of coats, cardigans, choir robes, sweaters, shirts, a few pairs of children’s shoes, and all the palms and flowers everyone had carried there, lying in a lumpy row leading from the gate of the cemetery to the terribly quiet rectangle of opened earth, toward which the pallbearers, with the help of father Joseph, rolled their friend.

There he was buried. There they all stood for a long time. And in the days that followed, all anyone could talk about was how Anne, before the Lord, was marvelous.


Kayla Beth Moore is a writer from east Tennessee. She holds an MAR in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. She was the founding curator of the Library at Grace Farms and lives in Atlanta, GA.