Sunday, February 26, 2006

New beginnings?

If worship were just a matter between me and God there would be no need to go to church on Sunday. I could just settle into that comfortable chair in my bedroom and go to it. But I know that wouldn't be enough for me.

I like liturgy. I like the silence of Quaker worship, too; I value that emphasis on clearing everything else away to listen for what God might have to say to me. But as I realized a year ago when I started asking myself where I really belonged, I would miss formal liturgy very much if I worshiped only with the Friends. I appreciate the mindfulness of the looping trajectory through the liturgical seasons and the orderly consideration of Biblical texts. I like the music and I appreciate the eloquence of formal liturgical prayer.

So what should I be looking for in a church community? Nice people? People who share my beliefs? A place where the sign out front carries the name of the denomination I was raised in? None of those things strikes me as quite the right answer. Wherever I go, the people won't all be nice, they won't all share my beliefs, and even the church I attended as a child doesn't seem the same today as it was then. All I can say is that I'm looking for a place that "feels" right, though I know that feelings can't be the only basis for this decision.

I had a plan for today, but when I woke up, I didn't feel like going through with it. The plan was to go to bed early last night and get up early this morning (which I did). I was going to go to the 8 am service at a nearby Episcopal church, then head on to the 10:30 am service at the church I've been attending for the past year. I got out of bed in plenty of time but I had a hard time convincing myself to start getting ready, and as I result I almost missed the first church in this plan. I'm glad I didn't.

There are four Episcopal churches in my near vicinity, a surprisingly generous allotment considering how many Episcopal churches there are in total. I believe each fits into a slightly different place in the Anglican spectrum, though I can't say I fully understand the differences. A year ago I chose to check out the one that's farthest away, about a 15-minute drive from home. For eight years I had driven past it regularly on my way to my kids' school and I felt connected to it in some way I couldn't quite explain. There was a sign outside with a message that changed; often it was a short prayer that I made my own as I went by. I have to admit I wanted to know what it would be like to have a woman priest as presider. On the other hand, I wanted to stay away from the churches that are closer to home because my commitment was so tentative and I didn't want to meet anyone I knew in church, or be seen by anyone I knew going in.

Two things have been happening over the past year. The first is that I've felt more and more that I "belonged" to the church I was attending. The second is that I've realized the church in the next town over may be a better fit. I could make a list of things that seem right about it. For one thing, it looks and feels "churchier." Renewed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement, as they say on their website, they seem closer to the Catholic side of things. They're rooted in my own geographical community, and I've come to see that as important. I admire the commitment to social justice that's reflected by the social programs that are located on church property.

This morning I woke up in plenty of time to get there, but I had a hard time convincing myself to get moving. I felt like being in the place that is most comfortable to me now, the 8:30 am service at the church down the road. I almost talked myself in going there, but finally I ordered myself not to let this opportunity go by. I'm not always up so early on a Sunday, and I wanted to see what if anything this other church would be doing for Lent.

Unlike the church down the road, this one could easily pass for a Catholic church. At 8 the sun was shining brightly through the stained glass, casting colorful shadows around the walls. It's pretty inside and it felt peaceful; even the faint scent of insecticide made it feel more like the churches I've prayed in all my life. There were only five of us in the congregation including myself, and they were a kind and welcoming group. The sermon was thoughtful, spoken from the heart rather than read, and overall it was a satisfying experience.

I decided to pass on the 10:30 service for a variety of reasons. I think maybe one of the lessons I've learned over the past year is that it's possible to find a place in a new community, that I don't need to feel tied to any church just because I've been there for a while and I recognize the people. (Here I'm thinking both of the Episcopal church down the road and the Catholic parish where I worshiped for 26 years.) I'll be eternally grateful to the people at the church where I've worshiped for the past year. They threw me a life preserver when I felt I was drowning. They took me in and treated me like one of their own at a time when I really needed that. Still, I think I'm right to suspect it isn't where I need to be in the long run.

And so it seemed fitting to show up at a new church on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, just as I did last year, open to whatever it might have to offer me, open to the possibility that this might be where I belong.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What goes around, comes around

If my informal goal was to worship at three different churches this week, I failed by two-thirds. Three different scheduling conflicts kept me from morning Mass at St. Martin's. I found a couple of other excuses to skip the Thursday evening Eucharist at a nearby Episcopal church I mean to investigate--the main thing being that I was so tired I would have had a hard time staying focused on anything at all that night. I am trying to shoehorn a little too much into each day, I know, so something had to give, and that was it.

Now it's Saturday and I haven't decided where I will worship tomorrow. And Ash Wednesday is this coming week, and I still have no idea what to do with myself for Lent. I remind myself that I need to be patient about this, but I am tired of feeling "out there." I want to come in from the cold. I want to go home, wherever that might be.

When I heard about the Episcopal Ash Wednesday service in the chapel at the university, I thought I would probably go there. Then I thought maybe I ought to be with my Episcopal community here instead. In a small community the absence of individuals makes a difference, and at least for now that's the best thing I have going in the faith community department. I know I draw a great deal of strength and encouragement from others; that's why I need to feel I belong somewhere.

Last night I had dinner with a group of people who are associated in one way or another with the elementary school my kids attended. I sat next to a man who is thought to be the school's oldest living graduate. At 89 he doesn't hear very well and there was loud music in the background, so our conversation was rather one-sided--when he felt like talking, I got to listen. Anything I wanted to say to him had to be shouted at top volume, and even then there was a good chance I'd have to repeat it several times to get through to him.

This man is a Native American and for a while he was telling me about the talks he gives to college students on Native American spirituality. Then he spoke about his belief in the power of prayer, and he told a few stories about people who had sought him out and asked him to pray for themselves or for people they loved. I felt an urge to ask him to pray for me but I didn't; I think I was intimidated by the thought of having to shout it out until everyone in our near vicinity heard me, too.

This morning I was sorting through some papers mostly related to taxes and I came across a note a friend sent me last year. I didn't read the whole thing over but my eyes did fall on a line toward the end that said, Be assured of my prayers for you. I was intensely touched by that. It's not the kind of thing that I feel comfortable saying to people even now, though occasionally I'll promise to keep a good thought for someone. But the idea that someone else was praying for me really touched me.

I wish I'd been brave enough to shout out my prayer request to Ed last night, but I promise you this, Ed: I'll be praying for you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Odds and ends

A few things on my my mind today, not necessarily connected ...

1. High standards: I do realize I'm setting the bar a little high, judging every church experience I have by the standard of whether it lifts me to a mountaintop experience. Even my best and happiest Catholic days weren't like that, obviously, or I wouldn't have had the time or energy for ordinary everyday living. I'm know I'm too anxious to make a decision and settle somewhere, and I know I need to back off a little and be patient.

2. The problem of language: I noticed yesterday that they kept saying the word "God" over and over again, and after a while I figured out they were trying to avoid using the pronoun "he" in reference to the deity. I sympathize because I don't think God is a man, and we don't have a pronoun that adequately expresses whatever God is. "It" certainly doesn't do it. "You" might but doesn't always work grammatically. Saying "God" over and over again just sounded "dumb." I generally write "He," in deference to what I was taught, and because capitalizing it does suggest I'm not just talking about some man, and because worrying too much about it seems like a distraction from the really important stuff.

3. Wireless access: (See yesterday's post for my previous comments on this subject.) It turns out the university chapel does not have an access point. The wireless coverage map makes it appear that part of the chapel, especially toward the rear, may fall within the library's outdoor coverage area, but I don't know how well the signal penetrates the chapel's massive walls. Guess those inside will have to continue to rely on a different communication technology.

4. A whole new world: This is the one I'm most excited about. It turns out there's a whole new world of Catholic experience out there and I was totally unaware of it. (Who knows, if I'd heard about this stuff sooner, I might not have left.) Looking for companionship in the bloggosphere, I recently searched all blogs for the world "Catholic." Later, I found myself looking at a blog that had ad words enabled, and there was a whole column of unexpected Catholic references. Like, featured in a little ad that said, "Roman Catholic Church: Free to Join. 1000's of pictures of Beautiful Catholic Singles." Hmmm. It always was free to join, as far I know, but I had a feeling the pictures they were talking about weren't holy cards of saints. I clicked on the link to their web site, where one can "browse pictures and videos," "use our real time chat," and "communicate anonymously."

"We have found bliss," a user in Cedar Rapids reports.

Wow. Wonder what they were chatting anonymously about. A deep discussion of the Holy Trinity, or the Immaculate Conception, perhaps? The pictures (definitely not holy cards!) showed a lot of young and attractive people doing things like kissing and snuggling, and I'm afraid I'm too old, too unattractive, and definitely too married for any of that.

I considered moving on to Christian Millionaire Mentoring but I was too depressed by the obvious implication of that one. First premise: If God really loved me He'd make me rich. Second premise: I've certainly been been trying hard to show God I love Him, so if I'm not rich by now ...

But actually, I am rich. I have been blessed in so many ways, I am rich beyond measure, so you'll hear no complaints from me in that department.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Trying to connect

The university chapel is magnificent. When an acquaintance who is an old grad from way back heard I had a job here, the chapel was one of two buildings he wanted me to see as soon as possible. “I don’t know if you’re religious,” he said, “but if you aren’t, you will be once you see the chapel.”

Like a soaring anthem, Haydn’s Te Deum, for example, it does have that effect on me. Its beauty lifts me toward God. I am inspired by these things created by humans to glorify the Creator. (Well, OK, maybe in this case it was also intended to glorify the university; hope God doesn't mind sharing!) From the outside, the chapel doesn’t look all that big. I guess it is a little bigger than the library or the classroom buildings nearby, but when I step inside I still find my breath almost taken away by the vastness of it, the sweeping arches and stained glass reaching toward the ceiling. At 4:30 on a February afternoon the sun is low in the west and it streams through the stained glass behind the choir loft. The air moves just enough to ripple the banners that hang high above the center aisle. Their somewhat abstract pattern is meant to suggest fire and wind, and they succeed very well at that.

The side altar toward the front of the church is a little darker but its short pews and low ceiling make it seem cozy by comparison. There were six of us today, two students (a young man and a young woman), two male clergy, and two “adult” women, and so our gathering was symmetrical in a couple of ways. It was good to be there, though the time seemed to fly by before I really had a chance to make as much use of it as I had intended. They asked me to do the first reading, so I took a few minutes to look that over and then felt a little anxious waiting for things to get started. I should have stayed to sit quietly by myself for a while, but I was too self-conscious.

I like the Book of Common Prayer. It’s dignified, unlike some of the stuff they’ve stuck onto the “new” Catholic Mass. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t think it counts if it isn’t the old Tridentine Mass in Latin, but God knows we threw away some time-tested and wonderful liturgy and liturgical music and replaced it with dross. What a loss. (I know there are Episcopal traditionalists who cling to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer for the same reason, but not having known it, I don’t miss it.)

It was still light when the service ended, though the sun was on its way down and lights were starting to come on in the buildings I passed. It’s a quiet time on campus, when classes and business have mostly ended and those people who are still around have nowhere in particular to rush off to. When I was a college student myself, this was the time of day when I was most likely to feel homesick, but now it feels luxurious to have time to hang around. It's peaceful even at the campus center, where I stopped to try to play around with the wireless connection on my laptop. (I couldn’t help wondering as I left the chapel whether it, too, is “wireless,” or if the only non-wired connections there go straight to heaven … )

The service was peaceful, too, and I’m sure I’ll be back--and yet … and yet …

Don’t know if it’s because there’s something missing there for me, or if it was my mood, or being a little nervous about reading, or something else entirely, but I never felt I quite connected today. (Guess maybe I need that wireless connection after all … )

Monday, February 20, 2006

Credo in unum deum

I was talking to a friend about this stuff and I said I was afraid that I might make the wrong choice, and specifically that I might end up crawling back to the comfort of old familiar Catholic ways when maybe this was God's way of shaking me up, yanking away my security blanket and freeing me to move on to something different. She said maybe it was God's way of giving me a chance to act on what I really believe.

Funny thing, but that isn't how I've been approaching the problem. I've been asking myself, where do I find God, or, where is God leading me? I haven't started by asking myself what I really believe.

I suppose that's because I never found it easy to sign on to believing the whole Catholic thing, anyway. Like most Catholics, or at least like most of those I know, I found ways to live with the disharmony of believing certain things in my own heart while the Church is teaching something contradictory. I did it by living by the heart, letting my love for God and my desire to live closer to God be the main thing, and letting thinking about God be a little less important. And the funny thing is that by living and praying like a Catholic I was coming closer and closer to being at peace with it all, so that I grew more and more comfortable and certain about reciting the creed at Mass, which was something I had done almost with my fingers crossed when I was younger.

And then suddenly, bang, out the door ... and off to another church where it turns out they recite the same creed.

But I when I say those words now, I don't know what they're supposed to mean. I don't know what I believe. I'm trying to get to God, that's all I know. I'm trying to get settled in that quiet, non-verbal place at the center of myself and ask God what He wants from me. Is that the right way to approach this, I wonder--and if so, why am I having such a hard time hearing what (if anything) He's trying to say to me?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Going nowhere

I was hoping to try attending different Episcopal church this morning, one that's closer to home and at the same time "churchier" than the one I've been going to for the past year. However, after a restless night, I feel asleep and stayed asleep until five minutes before that service started. Now I'm wondering what that means. Is God trying to tell me something? Am I trying to tell myself something? Does this mean something, or nothing at all?

I was trying to work out a schedule for myself for the week. I could attend morning Mass with the Catholics Monday or Wednesday, worship with the Episcopalians at the university Tuesday afternoon, and head over to my churchier nearby Episcopal congregation for Holy Eucharist Thursday evening. I'm trying so hard to figure out which one I like best before my self-imposed deadline of Ash Wednesday--not that the church I attend on March 1 will be my final choice, but I really don't want to switch again halfway through Lent.

Am I nuts, or what?

A warm welcome, and an admission

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Had a nice exchange of emails yesterday with the chaplain, following up on my appearance Tuesday afternoon at the service in the chapel. I know it's easier to notice who's new and to reach out to them when you are dealing with a relatively small group, but I've had two experiences now of showing up and being warmly welcomed into an Episcopal community and it's been much appreciated. (I know there are some, probably including my own parents, who would strongly prefer anonymity, but I am not one of those.)

I admitted to being a sort of "hybrid," unable to decide between Catholic and Episcopal affiliation, and he said he understood because he himself had made that transition in his late 20s. Of course, when I was in my late 20s, I was making the transition back into the Catholic Church after a period of being unchurched for nearly 10 years. Was that a mistake, I wonder now.

I mentioned to a friend that maybe it's wrong to reach back for the comfort of a Catholic community when I suspect I would not really satisfied there in the long run. I said I wondered if this was God giving me a chance to strike out in a whole new direction. She said maybe I ought to think of it as a chance to act on what I believe. And the odd thing is, I do think the Episcopal Church more accurately reflects much of what I believe. I'm just not sure about those one or two bits that might be crucial, beliefs about the sacraments for example, and I'm not sure I'll ever have the courage to break with "home."

If it's Tuesday, this must be the Episcopal church

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

I went to the 4:30 Episcopal Holy Eucharist in the university chapel yesterday and was moved by its simple beauty.

Which wasn't supposed to be my reaction at all.

A few weeks ago when I went to the Sunday service at my Episcopal church and left feeling completely convinced that I would not go back. I planned to sit down and write a nice note to the vicar and the congregation explaining my decision and thanking them for their warm hospitality during the past year. This intention lasted all week but for some reason I never got around to finishing that note, and when Sunday rolled around again I decided that attending the annual meeting would be the right way to finish things off, since I first showed up there the week after last year's annual meeting. But instead of closure, what I experienced was a warm sense of belonging. I found, somewhat to my surprise, that if you make that church your "principal place of public worship" for a year and give them something, you are considered a "contributing member" eligible to vote at the meeting (although there was no voting, everything being accomplished by acclaim rather than an actual vote).

So I returned home totally confused, ready to sign up for inquirer's classes (not in preparation for joining, but just because I want to learn more). However, I never made that call, either and eventually I decided it was because I really felt pulled back toward a Catholic church. I had in fact just received a mailing from that group as part of their parish planning process, asking if I wanted to be visited and asking if I still wanted to be listed as a member. And I decided the timing of this letter was fortuitous, a sign that I ought to commit myself to belonging there. Last weekend, however, a big snow storm pretty much determined that their Saturday evening Mass was the only church option I was going to have, and though I arrived anticipating that I would feel I was really back where I belonged, it turned out I didn't feel that way, not at all.

However, I hadn't entirely let go of the idea of committing myself to that congregation when Tuesday rolled around. I think I went up to the chapel mostly because I had put it on my calendar and felt somehow that I ought to follow through. There were only four of us present, as it turned out, all "adults" rather than students: a woman who was the presider and assistant chaplain; the chaplain and his wife, and the dean of the chapel and who is also, as it happens, an ordained Episcopal priest. (Which meant there were three ordained persons and two others--an unusual balance.)

The presider was solemn and thoughtful presider--a little on the stern side, I though, until she greeted me warmly at the conclusion. In fact, they all greeted me warmly--hard not to notice a newcomer in that small group, I suppose. In the dark beauty of that awesome church, with the (to me) poetic words of the Book of Common Prayer washing over me, I felt that I was indeed in the right place. I will go back, I am sure, but my sense of peace was certainly disrupted by my sense of utter confusion. And it doesn't help that the Catholic Mass is celebrated in this same space, at noon on weekdays. (And, for what it's worth, is much better attended ... )

Pushed out of that comfortable pew

Monday, February 13, 2006

So here I am, middle-aged, kids grown or nearly so, deep in the throes of a totally unexpected mid-life crisis. I thought I had it all figured out, you know. Thought I'd long since worked my way through this stuff. I thought I knew where I belonged, understood how I fit in, had come to terms with the messy, less-than-perfect parts.

Then, suddenly: Meltdown at the Catholic parish where I had been an active member for 26 years, and I found myself at the epicenter. I was treated badly, I feel, but even more hurtful was the way the parish community was torn apart--just when I thought we'd been making such progress at building it up. I can't go back there again. A year ago, I thought I would take a sort of "sabbatical," pray elsewhere for a couple of months until I could face it again, except somehow I never got there. Anyway, enough said about that; it's not what I want to dwell on now, but it is how this spiritual road trip began.

And so I've wandered, trying out different Catholic churches, moving on to different Christian churches. I was quickly able to rule some out. (I thought maybe I could be a Lutheran, but it only took half a service at the nearest Lutheran church to prove to myself that I didn't belong there. Everyone seemed to exude so much Christian joy and confidence--not necessarily a bad thing, but it was way too much for a soul as lost and confused as I.)

Eventually, I started to divide my time between a different Catholic church than the one I had belonged to and an Episcopal church a few miles down the road. More time passed and I found myself mostly at the Episcopal church, feeling on alternate Sundays that I definitely didn't belong there or that I definitely did. Eventually, I made up my mind to leave. I imagined myself writing a memoir, maybe calling it "My Year as an Episcopalian." One year exactly after my arrival on that scene, I was sure I was there for the last time. Then I thought maybe I ought to go back the following week to the annual meeting, for closure, and when I did I found myself feeling very strongly that I really did belong. So I've been back a few more Sundays, each time feeling pretty sure it's going to be my last visit, then reneging when Sunday rolled round again.

I'd really like to settle somewhere by the time Lent starts in another two weeks, but when I sit down and try to make up my mind about where to go I feel more confused than ever. Where do I belong? What's it all about, anyway? I can't believe I'm asking myself these questions again, so many years beyond those late-night and not-entirely-sober dormitory debates about the meaning of life.