John Steinbeck the Episcopalian

John Steinbeck the Episcopalian

On my drive back home from Santa Barbara, I stopped at the John Steinbeck Museum in Salinas CA, where I was reminded that Steinbeck grew up Episcopalian and served as an acolyte at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas. In one of his later books, Steinbeck reminisces about a Sunday when the bishop visited the church. He served as the Crucifer that day (pictured above) and said he “set the cross in its socket at the end of the processional and forgot to throw the brass latch that held it in. At the reading of the second lesson [young Steinbeck] saw with horror the heavy brass cross sway and crash on [the bishop’s] holy hairless head. The bishop went down like a pole-axed cow.” I think that might have been the last time young Steinbeck served as the Crucifer at St. Paul’s.

Steinbeck grew up to become one of the greatest American novelists and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He authored my favorite novel, East of Eden, which is essentially a 600-page commentary on one Hebrew word (“timshel” which means “thou mayest”). In spite of his embarrassing experience as an acolyte, his exposure to the poetic collects and prayers of the Episcopal worship service inspired his own love of the English language. He wrote, “These words dropped into my childish mind as if you should accidentally drop a ring into a deep well. I did not think of them much at the time, but there came a day in my life when the ring was fished up out of the well, good as new.” Steinbeck reminds me how important it is for us to keep immersing ourselves and our youth in the powerful words of prayer and worship, even when it might feel rote. Our words of common worship are filling the wells of our hearts, whether we know it or not; and in this way, we are storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where neither mice nor men destroy and where thieves cannot break in and steal (Matt 6:20).

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