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The sacristy at General Seminary. We were students. As we put on our vestments, we were aware that the many things we didn’t know yet were on embarrassing display. True, the faculty and sacristans were there to help us, but they would also be forming judgments about us, would they not? How could they help it? She doesn’t know when to bring the second chalice from the credence table over to the altar. She doesn’t know when to step out for the gospel procession. She doesn’t know how to charge a thurible, let alone how to swing one. She doesn’t even know how to knot her own cincture! I was silently envious of my male colleagues, most of whom had been acolytes when they were boys. They knew all these things. But not me. When I was young, girls couldn’t be acolytes. 

Sacristy in San Miniato al Monte
Florentine, 14th Century

The sacristy in the basilica of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. Gorgeously carved dark wood vestment cabinets, dark wood paneling. Fourteenth century frescoes of the life of Benedict line the walls: he heals the sick, tends the poor. He’s a first responder after an earthquake. He vanquishes many snarling demons, who have no choice but to retreat angrily before the power of his holiness.

The sacristy in St. James, also in Florence. A candle on the shelf droops interestingly in the summer heat, folding in upon itself again and again until it takes on the shape of a rose. It is just too remarkable in its deformity to throw away, but you can’t help pointing it out to visitors in a faintly preemptive manner. You don’t want them to think that you’re too overwhelmed to take proper care of things. That you are in over your head. You don’t want them to think you haven’t noticed its progressive sag, that you may have been preoccupied with your own.

The sacristy at the seaport. Barely big enough to turn around in. You put on your vestments and grab your bell. Then you leave the sacristy and head downstairs to the bar, where you make a circuit among seafarers, truckers, longshoremen, announcing as you ring that the Mass will begin in 10 minutes. 

The sacristy at St. Mary’s in Virgin Gorda. Small. Hot. Male clergy can and do strip down to their undershorts under their vestments, but of course I cannot. A motionless lizard gazes at me from the window sill as I layer on alb, stole, chasuble over my clothes. You can get used to anything. The layers keep us cool is the standing joke about Caribbean vestments. There is some truth to it.

The sacristy at Trinity Wall Street. Old, but large and efficient. On your first day there, you vested and then you stood on the wrong side of the enormous desk in the center of the room. You hadn’t known there was a right and a wrong side. One of the other priests gently steered you around to your proper place. For a moment you were again aware of your ineptitude, as you would be in every new place for the rest of your ministry. It would not be long, though, before the moments of preparation there became treasures you kept in your memory, not long before you felt kinship with all of them, a sister to all the sisters and brothers who ever served there… Decades later, you still do. You realize every time you return there that you love them still, and that you will love them always. 

The sacristy at St. Clement’s, which began as one modest closet and blossomed to become an entire room when we built the new chapel. The sacristy at St. Luke’s, a cheerful clutter of old service leaflets and out of date calendars, where the ministers in town gathered every Good Friday to prepare for the preaching service. 

The sacristy at Grace, Monroe, tiny and worn out, missing so many things that you need to bring off an Episcopal liturgy, but inexplicably provided with a beautiful golden monstrance, its round window ready to receive and show forth one paper-thin white wafer, the bread of Eucharist. Who last used this beauty? Where did it come from? How did it come here?

A hush in every sacristy, just before we leave it to begin the service. The verger runs through how we will proceed, who will administer bread and where, who will administer wine. Then all stand at attention. It is time to begin.

Be present, be present, Lord Jesus Christ, and be known to us as you were known to your disciples in the breaking of bread. 

I will go unto the altar of God, even the God of my joy and gladness. 

Let us go forth in peace. In the name of Christ, Amen. 

The sacristy is the room in which the ministers prepare for the worship service, and where their garments and liturgical equipment are stored and cared for.

The sacristans work in the sacristy, to ensure that everything needed is there and in good order.

The alb is the white garment, a bit like a long nightshirt, worn under other vestments.

The cincture is its belt.

The stole is the long heavy strip of cloth worn around the priest’s neck or over the deacon’s left shoulder (his/her right shoulder is always left free, to carry the gospel into the world).

The chasuble is the poncho-like garment worn by the priest during celebrations of the Eucharist.

The verger is a layperson charged with managing the service and getting participants where they need to be when they need to be there.

A monstrance is an ornate tall metal holder, with a round glass window in its center. It is used to display a consecrated host (communion bread) for devotions like Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (in which people silently contemplate the presence of Christ) or Benediction (in which the priest blesses the people with it.

Barbara Crafton, The Geranium Farm

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton is an Episcopal priest and author. She heads The Geranium Farm, an institute for the promotion of spiritual growth. The Farm publishes her Almost-Daily eMo, a meditation read online by tens of thousands worldwide via email and on the website. She is currently interim rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Metuchen, NJ, and has served a number of churches, including historic Trinity Church, Wall Street, St. John’s-in-the-Village in Greenwich Village, St. Clement’s in Manhattan’s theatre district, and St. James, the American church in Florence, Italy. She was a maritime chaplain on the New York waterfront and served as a chaplain at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. A spiritual director, Crafton leads retreats and teaches throughout the United States and abroad. Her many books include essays (The Sewing Room, Yes! We’ll Gather at the River, Some Things You Just have to Live With), daily meditations (including Let Us Bless the Lord vol. 1-4, Meditations on the Psalms, Finding Time for Serenity), poetry (Blessed Paradoxes), a book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 (Mass in Time of War) and, most recently, one about how people of faith experience depression (Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet).

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