An Influx of Gnomes

A spokesman for the Diocese of Bath and Wells said: “There is no such thing as a real gnome so why should we have such unnatural creatures in churchyards?”, November 2008

When Pastor Scott had discovered the original gnome, he’d assumed it had been put there by a teenager and he threw it out without a second thought. But a few days later, Karen Allen knocked on the door of the rectory. Karen was the longest-serving and most active of the various church volunteers, and she kept close tabs on all things happening at Holy Ascension. In fact, Pastor Scott felt that Karen was generally more interested in the policies and procedures of Holy Ascension than he was, and in the concerns and troubles of its parishioners.

‘Pastor Scott,’ said Karen now. ‘Anna Trilby is all upset. That darling little garden gnome she put on her mother’s grave went missing last week. I suppose some kids took it, and I know that these things can’t be helped, but I thought I’d let you know, she’s upset. Apparently, it was her mother’s gnome, and now Anna wishes she’d just hung onto it.’

‘I threw it out,’ said Pastor Scott, surprised. ‘I thought kids put it there.’

‘Why would kids decorate Anna’s mother’s grave?’

‘I didn’t imagine Anna put a gnome there. I thought it was a joke.’

‘Oh, no, her mother loved that gnome. You threw it out? Has the trash gone?’

‘I’m sure it has.’

‘Oh, no. I suppose I’ll have to tell Anna. She’ll be so upset.’

‘Well, don’t make a point of telling her unless she brings it up again.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Well, tell her, if you feel you ought to, but frankly, I don’t see the point of it.’

‘I think she’ll want to know what happened to it.’

‘It was just a gnome.’

‘It was her mother’s.’

‘Well. Tell her I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.’

Two days later, a new gnome was on Mrs. Biddemore’s grave. This gnome had a little wheelbarrow full of plastic flowers. Pastor Scott stared at it resentfully. He didn’t know exactly why, but he didn’t like it. He felt it was flip. And also, it was tacky. All the other graves sat sedately, somberly, with their bunches of flowers in various stages of decay. There were no gnomes, no statuary of any kind. There weren’t even any plaster saints or angels. On little Tom Hansbury’s grave, there was a small stuffed lamb, moldy from dew and rain. It looked pretty bad, but of course, parents bereaved of small children had to be permitted to place toys on the graves. After an appropriate amount of time had passed, Pastor Scott would remove the lamb, just as he had removed so many plush and plastic toys and dolls over the years. The families never noticed, or if they did, they perhaps assumed the little tributes had disintegrated, filtering through the soil to mingle with the remains of their owners.

There was nothing tacky about these mementos. They were heartbreaking and touching. This plastic gnome, however, with its broad grin and its stupid garish plastic flowers made a mockery of that sad, moldering, pathetic little lamb. Pastor Scott wouldn’t stand for it. It was an affront to all serious people buried in his churchyard.

After service the following Sunday, as Anna Trilby paused to shake his hand in the doorway, Pastor Scott asked if he might have a word. Anna waited for the small congregation to exit, and then followed Pastor Scott into the rectory.

‘Have a seat, Anna,’ he began. ‘I noticed that you’ve found a replacement gnome for your mother’s grave.’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Listen, I hope you don’t feel bad about throwing her gnome out. I was upset, I’ll admit, but I’ve gotten over it. It was an honest mistake, and I know you didn’t mean anything by it.’

‘Good, good,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘Anna. I know that decorating the graves of our loved ones is an important part of the grieving process, and I hate to interfere with your remembrance of your mother, but I can’t help but feel that…well, this new gnome. It’s not your mother’s gnome, is it?’

‘Well, no,’ said Anna. ‘I bought it at Mayo’s.’

‘Yes, you see.’

‘I’m sorry, Pastor. I don’t see your point. Is there a problem with the gnome being there?’

‘Well, Anna,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘I know your mother liked her gnome. But I’m sure that there were a great many things she enjoyed that even you would agree it would not be appropriate to festoon her grave with. For example, perhaps she liked cake, or flannel pajamas, or bridge. But you wouldn’t put any of those things on her grave, would you?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Anna. ‘I guess I…. Well, for one thing, a gnome is garden statuary. So it makes sense for it to be outdoors in a natural place. My mother loved to garden.’

‘Yes, but this isn’t even her gnome!’ said Pastor Scott. ‘She never met it – it’s a gnome from Mayo’s! And I’m sorry, Anna, I don’t mean to go on about this, but I just feel that gnomes are comical. And they are also fairytale creatures. They’re not real. An animal or an angel is one thing, but a gnome in a churchyard? I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel it’s appropriate.’

‘Well,’ said Anna. ‘I don’t know what to say! I’m sorry if you don’t personally care for gnomes, but it’s my mother and my gnome, and with all due respect, Pastor, I don’t see that it’s any business of yours.’

‘Well, it’s my churchyard, and I have to look out for the interests of all of its occupants, not your mother alone.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, have there been complaints? Is my gnome disturbing the peace of my mother’s neighbors?’

‘Let’s not be disrespectful,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘This is exactly the kind of flippancy regarding the dead that I fear the presence of garden gnomes is likely to encourage.’

‘I can’t continue this conversation,’ said Anna, rising. ‘You’re making me very angry. I think you’ve overstepped your bounds.’

‘Anna, I’ll let you have some time to think over what I’ve said. I think that when you’ve calmed down and thought about it rationally, you’ll realize that—

–But Anna had slammed through the door.

Pastor Scott was sorry to have had a confrontation. He had meant to be more sensitive, but there simply was no precedent for dealing with such a situation. He thought it over at length, but determined that, awkward as it might be, he was in the right. The gnome had to go. If Anna did not remove it in three days, he would.

The next day, Karen Allen knocked on his door again. She came in and settled herself without waiting for permission.

‘Do you want to tell me what happened with Anna Trilby?’ she opened, as if he were a naughty child come home from school with a note.

‘I told her, quite rightly, that I didn’t feel that garden gnome was appropriate in the churchyard, and of course, she wasn’t happy. I’m sorry to have upset her, but I stand by my objection, and furthermore, I’ve decided to remove it in two more days if she doesn’t come to her senses, so you might want to talk to her, Karen. Perhaps you could say it more sensitively than I managed – make her see that it could be seen as disrespectful. I have the other parishioners to think of.’

‘Have any of them complained?’

‘Well, who would?’

‘Pastor Scott, is there anything the matter?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It just seems…well, I mean, this isn’t like you, to get so worked up over something so trivial. I can’t help but think you must be under some stress.’

‘I am not worked up, Karen. I am perfectly calm. I simply don’t think it’s appropriate for people coming to mourn their loved ones to be confronted with a grinning, silly, plastic hunk of whimsy. It’s ridiculous, and it’s sacrilegious, and I will not allow it.’

‘Well, really, Pastor. It’s just a gnome.’

‘Now it’s a gnome. Next week, it’ll be a pink plastic flamingo, then it will be a lawn jockey, then a pinball machine. A line must be drawn somewhere!’

‘Alright,’ said Karen. ‘I’ll talk to Anna.’

The next day, the gnome had friends. There was now a gnome on Biddy Morris’s grave, as well – a garish little fellow with a pipe and a kerchief – and a large plaster chipmunk eating a nut on Tobin Hart’s.

‘Karen,’ called Pastor Scott.

‘I know, I know,’ said Karen, near at hand. ‘I tried. I talked to Anna, I tried to explain your objections. But she seemed to think you were attacking her. And I guess she told Maeve and Becky, and they said they thought the gnome was cute and you didn’t speak for them, and they thought they’d cheer up their own loved ones’ graves as well.’

‘It’s mutiny,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘I can’t believe they would spite me this way. Karen, I’m not trying to be the heavy here. I feel it’s inappropriate! I have to see after the interests of the dead.’

‘Oh,’ said Karen. ‘Why don’t you just let it go? Be the bigger person.’

‘It’s not about me, Karen,’ said Pastor Scott, and he gathered up the gnomes and the foolish chipmunk and carried them into the rectory.

By the following Sunday, none of the ornaments’ owners had stopped by to discuss their absence. Pastor Scott assumed they’d realized they’d been behaving badly, and had decided to let the matter drop. He prepared his sermon as usual, and the congregation came in, settled itself, and all was as it had been on previous Sundays. Pastor Scott felt relaxed. There were no bad vibes in the air. He was certain that everyone had decided to be adults again.

At the usual point in the service, Pastor Scott invited the children to come forward for their special sermon. This Sunday, he’d decided to speak on faith.

‘How many of you believe God exists?’ he asked the children, and was pleased to see most of them raised their hands.

‘Whew!’ he said. ‘That’s a lot of you. How do you know He exists? Have you seen Him?’

There was a faint little chorus of no’s, and a couple of yes’s. The congregation tittered.

‘Well, then,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘How do we know God exists? Because Pastor Scott says so? Because your moms and dads say He does?’

‘We believe,’ said Katie Mullaley.

‘That’s exactly correct, Katie,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘We have faith. Faith is belief without proof. We have faith in things that we can’t see or hear or touch, but we know that they’re there. Like love, or happiness, or Santa Claus.’

‘There is no Santa Claus,’ said Mike Anders, obnoxiously.

‘Well,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘Some people say there is no God. We know they’re wrong, though, because we have faith that God exists. We have faith in God, just as we have faith in the love of our moms and dads, and just as we know that our moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas love us, even when they die, even though we can’t see or hear them anymore. We know they’re there, looking down on us. Are there any other things you can think of that you have faith in, that you know are there, even though you can’t prove it?’

‘Gnomes,’ said Amber Trilby.

Pastor Scott felt suddenly sick. He felt the eyes of the congregation upon him.

‘Well, Amber,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘Gnomes are a little different than God. You see, gnomes are like…well, they’re like the characters in a book or a movie. They aren’t real, but we like to pretend they are, because it’s fun.’

‘But God is a character in a book,’ said Mike Anders, who was getting too old to be coming down to children’s sermon.

‘That’s true, Mike,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘But the Bible is a true book. Like your history book. It’s about things and people that really happened.’

‘But if God is in a book, and gnomes are in a book, and we can’t see any of them, how do we know God is real, but gnomes aren’t?’ said Amber.

‘Well,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘Because many people feel God in their lives. And people don’t feel gnomes.’

‘I have fairies in my closet!’ said Stephanie Wiseman, and attempted to tell a long story involving a fairy. The congregation laughed.

‘Santa Claus isn’t real,’ interrupted Mike Anders. ‘But everybody says he is – him and his elves. Maybe God’s fake and gnomes are real. Or maybe God has gnomes like Santa has elves.’

‘Well, now we’re being silly,’ said Pastor Scott. ‘The point is, it’s good to have faith, but we must be selective about our beliefs. Thank you, and God bless you, children.’

The children returned to their pews, and Pastor Scott took a minute at the lectern to collect himself.

‘So,’ he said. ‘Faith. We all try to have faith, and sometimes it’s difficult. Faith in each other. Faith in the world. Faith in justice. Faith in God. Faith in ourselves. Faith in our ability to maintain our own faith.’ He was just riffing now. He felt suddenly subject to the judgment of the sea of faces before him.

‘Let’s all make an effort,’ he said. ‘To pass this faith on to our children. To teach them that God is real, that God works in all of our lives, and to show them that God is a true and glorious mystery…better than Santa Claus, better than unicorns, better than gnomes. Because through God lies everlasting life. And that’s no mere fairy story.’

Never before had Pastor Scott wished he could just run into the rectory after a sermon, and skip out on greeting the congregation at the door. He felt like an actor who’d just bombed onstage, but, like the actor would do, he bravely held his head up high and marched to the door, to shake hands as if all was well.

When Anna Trilby reached him, she merely said, ‘Thank you, Pastor.’

‘Anna,’ he replied. He thought perhaps she’d wait to speak to him, but was both relieved and unsettled when she headed for her car with Greg and Amber. Perhaps at last they’d reached the end of it.

On Monday, there were five gnomes in the churchyard. Two smoking gnomes, a gnome dancing a jig, a gnome with a bird on its shoulder, and the gnome with the insolent wink. On Tuesday, they were joined by a small plaster deer, and on Wednesday, a plastic snowman with blinking lights for buttons. Pastor Scott was hurt. He was being mocked, that was all – blatantly and cruelly mocked. This was no schoolyard! This was a church, and he was its leader. He was God’s chosen spokesman here. He had pledged himself to the welfare of this congregation, and they were throwing his fealty back in his face. Well, fine. If that’s the way they felt about it, let them put up all the gnomes they liked. If they wanted a tacky, irreverent, idolatrous churchyard, then that was their lookout.

Pastor Scott took to his bed for the remainder of the week. Meanwhile, the gnomes continued to multiply, bringing along playmates of every conceivable genus and specie, costumed any which way, engaging in all manner of activities and intermixing freely. With no regard for decorum or shame, they filled the churchyard, owning it utterly, blotting out the solemn graves and burying the dead.

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