I went down to the Old Rock House Holiness Church in Section, Alabama to meet the Holy Ghost. Holy Ghost — as in HO-lahghost — the first syllable almost “Whoa!” for here is a ghost you can never encounter at the ghost’s most becalmed. The Holy Ghost, Sacred Specter of Action, Lord of Sudden Movements. Is this what God has been doing with Himself all along after we, under the bell curve of American Christianity, tuck our kids into bed? Reconstituting Himself as a perfect, herky-jerky phantasm who inhabits the spirits of the willing, causing them to jump up and down in place, pitch backward onto the church-house floor, speak in tongues, and pick up snakes?
The Holy Ghost goes by the alias Holy Spirit in every other context I know, “spirit” being the more toothsome term for our notions of ghosts. And the sacred. Basically, anything else we westerners would call holy. I’d heard of the Holy Ghost before, yessir, but the Holy Ghost in Section, Alabama is waaaaay different than the Holy Ghost I (barely) knew as a kid in the Methodist church. His fame there was relegated to the Doxology sung over the offering plates. “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” And snipped quickly away with a drawn out, “Aay—m’hen!”
The Old Rock House Holiness Church in Section, Alabama is a snake handling church and it’s been in some books and TV shows over the years. Mostly for the snakes, which are, in the hands of the snake-handlers, evidence of the Holy Ghost’s presence. Evidence not so much of His presence in the church-house itself, though there is that and space had been cleared for the Holy Ghost to show up, but in the temples that are the handlers’ hearts, minds, and bodies. But forget the snakes for a minute, if you can.
In Section, Alabama, I found out the Holy Ghost is a ghost you can approach, but you don’t approach without a little bit of trembling, without your arms raised up like holy conduits, and you don’t approach alone, no sir!
The first part of church, they called for prayer requests—“Remember my sister, she’s got that cancer”— and it all started moody and slow and brooding. I could close my eyes and not miss a thing. I heard a “Whoop!” from the preacher now and then, who’d been praying while he paced behind the paneled, chest-high wall that made for a pulpit. When I opened my eyes, I found myself swaying side to side to the clang of an electric guitar spinning through holy music too high-pitched for me to sing along to. Have you got ahold of my shoulders, Holy Ghost? I started clapping too.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: No one meets the Holy Ghost alone. People in the congregation, one at a time and in their own good time, started standing up in the pews. They glided to the front of the church-house, mostly women, holding up their arms in that universal posture of, “I surrender!” The preacher moved to receive them. He stooped from the little step that made the difference between the church-house floor and the part of the church at the front of the building where the preachers stomped and roamed.
But, wait: In all churches I’ve ever known—and I haven’t known them all—the relatively few times somebody heads to the front of the church, burdens in tow, they do it alone. They fall down in front of the alter alone, they cry to Jesus alone, they pull themselves together by themselves, and nobody walks them back to their pew. Not so, in Section, Alabama.
See: The pew next to mine, there sat a girl. Probably fifteen or sixteen years old. Weeping. She stood there, just weeping. Until, at some kind of breaking point known only to her and the Holy Ghost, she floated from her place in the pew and glided — I cannot say “glide” enough, mind you. It is the only word for the way in which people moved through the church-house — to the front. And before I knew it, the girl was surrounded.
Somebody held her left arm, somebody held her right. Somebody’s hands held her head and cradled her neck. Somebody’s hands on her back, ready, steadying. The preacher’s own hand trembled in the air, then down it came smack on her forehead. And the folks who weren’t touching her encircled her still, arms raised like lightning rods in a storm, begging on the girl’s behalf for a strike from the Holy Ghost.
And strike He did. Pow! The girl jumped, up and down and up and down, while the woman at her side wailed in words known only to God. And then she fell straight back. Into the arms of the folks around her, who laid her on her back on the church-house floor as softly as if to make her sleep. In a little while, the Holy Ghost woke her and she went back to the pew.
They knew, they all knew, everybody in that Section, Alabama church-house but me knew—they all knew this Holy Ghost. Not the Spirit, mind you, this Ghost. What He’d done and what He’d do, what all He was capable of. Something dangerous, something wild, some wallop to the soul so powerful it’d like to blow out the body in jerks and jumps, dances and hollers, tongues and snakes and strychnine. They knew you go to this Ghost together. What will He do, what will He tell us? We, all of us, together, let’s see.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.