Bruce Laingen, ranking American hostage in Tehran, yesterday returned to his parish church, All Saints' Episcopal in Chevy Chase, "so full of memories" and told congregations at two services of Morning Prayer about his "quiet nightly dialogues with my God."
There were light touches along the way, and, down in the crypt, Den 7 of the Cub Scouts of America had erected a large poster saying, somewhat shakily, welcome home, complete with a drawing of an amazing fowl thoughtfully labeled "the American eagle" in case you didn't recognize Old Baldy.
In the nave, promptly at 9, the oak doors opened and the common hymn used for wedding processionals began.
"Praise, my soul, the king," the choir in admirable voice behind the brass processional cross (a plain one, no sapphires) and its flanking torches.
"What can I say?" Laingen said.
It was entirely extraordinary he got to say anything, when you think of it, since the one thing rectors of churches simply do not do is give up their sermon time to archangels, let alone parishoners, but Dr. H. Stuart Irvin insisted Laingen address the congregations in place of the sermon.
"There never was a time," Laingen said, that he doubted the safe return of all 66 men and women seized at the embassy in the Iranian capital, 52 of them held hostage through two Christmases.
Once, Laingen and two others found themselves together on Christmas Eve, watched by their captors, along with two Assembly of God representatives, a Syrian archbishop, a papal nuncio, and the three of them bleating out Christmas carols. "Always wondered what they thought of us," he said.
The second Christmas, Laingen went on, the papal nuncio delivered each of them Christmas ornaments made of tin foil, made by other hostages and transmitted through the Roman priest. Laingen's was a lamb, with his little red-cross shield. It wound up in the possession of a militant, and Laingen hopes he got much good of it.
Once, he got word, in the quite roundabout way news got around, that one of the hostages had written his own father, quoting St. Paul, that faith is the substance of things unseen, and remarking that we ought to overcome evil with good.
At this point, the tweed-bearing ladies of the congregation began to start mopping with their handkerchiefs, and -- perhaps seeing this -- Laingen said, "We all learned to cry a bit. Tears of frustration, tears of anger, tears of fear -- tears are nothing to be ashamed of." Quoting Dickens he said tears may wash away the dust that too often overlies the heart.
"I'm terribly glad you made tears legal today," said a woman balancing a cup of coffee at a reception afterward.
Few books were to be had in captivity, but one of them, Laingen said, was a Lutheran Worship Book -- giddy reading, indeed, one gathered.
"The Lutherans are evidently better at infiltrating than Episcopalians are." (subdued laughter.)
"But in reading it, I was sorry to see the Lutherans have tampered with the king's English almost as much as Episcopalians have." (Laughter again, since the relatively gorgeous old language of Anglican ritual has been revised with what many consider to be the skill of an imbecile.)
Anyhow, Laingen went on, there was no hostage he knew of who failed to draw on religious strength during the long ordeal. Sometimes, of course, they said:
"God must be sitting this one out."
Occasionally, during the captivity, some of Laingen's letters from prison to the rector had been read to the congregation. So his homecoming was taken with all the greater immediacy by the hundreds who heard him speak at last in person.
In solitary confinement, during a power shortage, with Iranian voices raised on the rooftops praising God for some temporary military victory of the Persians, Laingen felt isolated indeed, but the "quiet nightly dialogues with my God" (a phrase he repeated) comforted him. He said to himself some of the old psalms of that prince of Judah -- he cited the 118th among them -- ("The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.") etc.
The service was not a festival blowout -- it might have been a sung service with trumpets and large goings-on -- but all the more affecting, probably, because it had no flourishes. Laingen spoke several times of the choir, which he thought of in Iran, especially the Christmas Eve Eucharists, and was sorry they were not going to sing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
He sat down and the choir sang it.
In good order the old road of worship was marched right through. "Sun and moon, bow down before him," the choir had commenced, the admirable boys' choir taking off from the main tune like a short cut to the Matterhorn, and all the old canticles were there, and the old phrases, automatic since childhood:
"The people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand. Thou didst open the kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin."
They stuck in an Evensong canticle, too, never sung in the mornings, but who's going to sue:
"Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation. Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light . . ."
Most of us, Laingen said, do not wear religion on the sleeve. Still, when chips are down, a guy may drink unsuspected springs without fanfare.
Isaiah provided the lesson yesterday and St. John the gospel, about Thomas, the one who doubted his Lord was alive and who would not believe "except I thrust my hand in his side."
Many who were there yesterday never expected to see the hostages again.
"Praise him for his grace and favor," the processional rumbled along, "to our fathers in distress. Praise him still the same as ever, slow to chide and swift to bless. Alleluia [with a sudden burst of energy] alleluia.
"Glorious in his faithfulness."
More handkerchiefs. Wrong about God. Didn't sit it out, after all.