Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The right place at the right time

I had an interesting and heartening thought as I drove toward work this morning.

I am in a spiritual place I never expected to be in, for reasons I don't begin to understand, with no clear idea of where I am going from here, and I still grieve the place I lost. The lack of vision for the future is something I find especially frustrating.

Yet all of a sudden I felt sure that where I am right now is exactly where God wants me to be, whether it makes much sense to me or not, and I found real strength and encouragement in that idea.

(I keep having these insights at a particular spot about ten minutes south of home; wonder if there is something more going on there besides road construction.)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Catch a tiger

I can still clearly remember the precise moment when it first occurred to me that God might not exist. It was a sunny day and I was walking home from school, going up the last little hill that leads to the house where my parents still live. I remember feeling a little thrill of terror, as well as great deal of surprise that I had never before given serious consideration to such an obviously possibility. It seems to me that in that instant I resolved to become an atheist. It would be a few years before I could put this plan into effect, practicing atheism being hard to carry out in the parochial school environment of that time and place, but it would be many years before I wholeheartedly admitted to believing in God again.

I arrived at college a few years later and stopped going to church more or less immediately. Looking back, I can see that I never succeeded in suppressing persistent spiritual leadings, and I think if anyone (possibly anyone from any faith) had reached out to me in those years, things might have evolved differently. But being religious wasn't cool and I never shared that side of myself with anyone, to some extent including even myself (not that I ever succeeded in being cool, at that).

I still looked in from time to time at a series of Catholic churches; it would be fair to say I just couldn't stay away. Gradually, over the second half of my third decade, I found my way back. The challenge was to believe in God; if I could get past that hurdle, there was never any question about the particular religious tradition in which I would express my faith. I was heavily influenced by Quakers but did not feel tempted to join them. No other church seemed worth considering.

Like almost every Catholic I know, even the most conservative, I had to find ways to make peace with some parts of the whole. There were things I didn't agree with, but on the other hand they didn't drive me away. I was willing to accept the church as a big tent, and I was happy in my corner. The tie that bound me to the Roman Catholic Church was the sacraments. If my non-believing friends expressed surprise at the idea that I was a practicing Catholic, I would shrug and say, It's who I am; it's where I need to be. And I believed that as much as I believed anything. The struggle was to believe in God.

Which is why it's so strange that so many years later my belief in God feels unshakable, yet I find myself completely unable to choose a church. Every time I think I'm getting closer to making a decision, I'll suddenly find myself tossing away everything I thought I'd settled and starting over.

And here I am on a Sunday morning, ten minutes before the start of the earliest of several services I was considering (so obviously I won't be at that one today, since I am still sitting here in my bathrobe), pondering the schedules of four different churches. I am back to my old familiar prayer: Eeney, Meeny, Miney, Moe ...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Going along, getting along together

I have been following the blogs of several ordained men and women, married people from (obviously) Christian traditions other than Roman Catholic, and I am struck by their humanity and the very ordinariness of their everyday lives, which combine a moving degree of care and concern for their church work with the same sorts of struggles the rest of us face. They worry about saving enough time for family, have children who delight and worry them by turns, must scramble to get everything done when the furnace gives out, company comes to stay, parishioners struggle with serious illness, etc.

I feel a great sense of companionship when I read the thoughts they share, a sense that we are all in this life together, walking the same path together, even if some take more responsibility for the others along the way. I have this same feeling with some of the Episcopal priests I have been getting to know over the past year. I have watched them share the joys and sorrows of the people in their churches, and we have shared a few of their joys and worries, too. In my thoughts about what a parish community could or should be that seems to me to be near the heart of it, that sharing of prayer and life, laughing and loving and sometimes crying together as we travel along "side by side." Though that ragamuffin band of disciples never seemed quite up to it, you could make the case that Jesus expected no less than this from his people.

Of course when I was growing up it was explained to us that celibacy left Roman Catholics free to work for God and worry about their people without the entanglements of family life. I'm not saying it couldn't work that way, but in practice, so often it hasn't. It seems to have created a class of men who are isolated from the ordinariness of daily life in order to pursue ... what? Even the priests who seemed to me to be the best and the brightest have put up some carefully constructed walls to separate themselves from engaging the rest of us too closely, too humanly--and then we find out they've been boinking one of the parishioners all along, or spending their off hours (loosely defined as "after lunch") drinking alone.

Do I feel let down? Sure I do, but in another sense I can't help feeling that we've all let each other down. How lonely life could be in those one-priest rectories.

Of course, anyone watching the sad spectacle that is playing itself out in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as the calls for the resignation of the bishop and his resolve to resist both mount can see that we Romans have no monopoly on dysfunction. The only positive in that situation is that the people aren't left without recourse while the (perceived, anyway) tyrant rants.

(Of course in these modern times we don't have tyrants but rather men who exhibit an "authoritarian and controlling style of leadership.")

Thursday, March 16, 2006

When prayer alone is not enough?

Too bad the crummy camera phone isn't good enough to clearly show the sign on the door in this picture of the small Catholic chapel within the larger chapel at the university. It reads, "... for emergency use ..."

Monday, March 13, 2006

We're all in this together

The deacon at the Catholic church I used to attend isn't a very flashy guy. His voice tends to be a little flat when he reads the Gospel, and he doesn't ever do homilies. You might be tempted to dismiss him as unimportant, but here's what really matters about this man: He was there when I first came to the parish 28 years ago, and he's still there now. He's there to open the church every morning before the 8:30 Mass unless he's sick, which is almost never. He's there to carry out the tasks of the St. Vincent de Paul Society no matter who else wants to help. He's there for the elderly when they need a ride to the doctor, and for the homeless when they need someone to arrange a place to stay for a night or two. He's there for baptisms and visits to the funeral home when the priests have other things to do. Those priests have come and gone over the years (and to be honest, some of them seemed more absent then present even before they left), but our deacon has always been there when anybody needed him.

I've only seen this man once since I stopped going to that church. I ran into him unexpectedly in the grocery store and didn't have time to think about how to explain why I hadn't been around, and so I didn't say much of anything and hated myself for it later. I really miss the guy and wished I'd said so.

I ran into him again today in the grocery store, and this time I didn't let him get away without telling him that I think he's the most faithful and committed person I've ever met. He told me he thought I'd come back to that church eventually. I shrugged and said maybe I would, even though I don't think I ever will.

And then I went out into the parking lot and ran into another old friend from that church, one who does keep in touch from time to time, and we hugged and chatted, too. She was in the hospital recently, and is a little depressed about that, and I was glad to have spend even a few minutes with her and tell her I'd keep her in my prayers.

And I remembered my recent musings about community, and thought about all the people I am blessed to have as traveling companions on this strange journey.

And I sincerely mean this, and yet at the same time, going to church with people I don't really know leaves me with a profoundly empty feeling. I used to look around in church and think to myself that I knew most everyone there. Even if I didn't know them by name, I could recognize the members of their family and had watched their children grow up, or remembered a husband or wife now deceased. I miss that a lot, but I hear that so many others have left my old parish, it wouldn't feel the same even if I went back now. Sad, sad, sad.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Going my way?

The center of my little river town was flooded last spring. My house was mostly spared, though muddy water inundated our yard and filled the paved crawl space under our house, and even that much turned out to be an ordeal.

The priest from the Episcopal church I had been attending for a mere two months at that point called to ask if I needed any help. Which I didn't, but it was wonderful to be asked. Naturally I heard nothing from my (only recently former) Catholic parish; another example of its consistent failure to find ways--in the face of large congregations and reduced clerical ranks--to make church communities function on a human scale.

(Then, of course, there was the elderly woman down the street who thanked us for stopping by to ask if she needed anything, but mentioned that she'd been trying for hours to take a shower and couldn't get to it because she had to keep stopping to visit with people who came to offer help. Sometimes a little community goes a long way.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about spiritual community. I want to worship with familiar faces, but they need not be my best friends in everyday life. I want to feel that I belong somewhere, but I don't really know what that means. I certainly don't want to be tied too firmly to one place, or one perspective. Mostly I want to feel encouraged and supported by others who are going down the same road; there's strength in numbers, and comfort in feeling we are all going down that road together.

And the thing I am slowly, slowly realizing, is that this doesn't have to happen in just one place, and maybe it's even better if it doesn't.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Is this going to be on the test?

I attended a Bible study group last night at one of my many churches. This church normally does this during the day, but they have added an evening session for Lent. One of the first questions asked was whether there would be homework. I thought about all the things I'm juggling, from work to my freelance work project to the course I am auditing to family responsibilities, and I thought, if there's homework, I'm out of here.

Fortunately, we will not be assigned to read anything outside of the time we are together.

But yeah, there is homework ...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Thank God it's Tuesday!

I was dragging all day, a bit overwhelmed by Tuesday (and all other) responsibilities at work, so I was grateful when 4:30 finally rolled around and I could take myself off to chapel for the Tuesday Eucharist. This continues to be for me an oasis of peace in a world of constant busy-ness. Not that I would give up anything thing I'm doing these days, from the course I'm auditing at the university to my job there to the big outside editing project that is drawing to a close, but sometimes, like today, it all feels a bit too much.

Then it's a joy to enter the deep twilight space of the chapel, to find my seat and close my eyes and settle in among the small band gathered there. I really do shut out the rest of the world when I enter that building, and lift up my heart.

The Catholics and Episcopalians hold most of their services in the same shared space toward the front of the church but off to the side. Behind this area, which is outfitted with the standard altar and pews, the Catholics keep a small room called Blessed Sacrament Chapel where one can go for private prayer. The doors from that room into the main chapel are usually open, and I realized today that if I turned in my pew I could see inside to the candle burning behind its red glass and a kneeler set in front of the reserved sacrament there.

Which could be interpreted in one of two ways. Either it's a marvelous thing to pray surrounded by meaningful elements from two religions--or it's strange and a little disturbing to have to turn my back on the Catholic stuff in order to focus on the Episcopalian.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Be holy

The LORD said to Moses,
"Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy."
-Leviticus 19:1-2

That's how today's readings began. Next came the specific instructions: Don't steal, don't lie, don't swear falsely. They sounded so familiar, I was sure I could pretty much guess the rest of what was coming, but I was wrong. You shalt not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer ... you shall not stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake.

Interesting stuff, followed by the gospel from Mark (Chapter 25), with its more familiar (thought perhaps better known in a slightly different translation): I was hungry and you gave me food.

We stand reminded that holiness is about more than getting along with God.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Something fishy going on here

My sister and I went out to dinner on Friday. She ordered extra-cheese pizza; I had a cheese calzone. The waitress came back after we'd been served to see if we needed anything else and also to ask if we'd ordered meatless entrees because it was Lent or for some other reason. We admitted the former, then empathized about having to go back to thinking differently, on this first Friday of Lent, about what to have for dinner.

It brought to mind the Tablet editorial I read a day or two earlier, recommending the reinstitution of the Lenten fast and Friday abstinence from meat: “The value of such symbols of shared identity needs rediscovering.” A day before that, I had laughed out loud when one of my podcasts referred to Ash Wednesday as Catholic identification day, when it becomes very easy to pick out your co-religionists even in a group of strangers.

Twice within three days I had chosen to manifest these “symbols of shared identity” (I didn't stoop so low as to eat fish, though) with a group I'm having a lot of trouble identifying with. Interesting. I can't easily escape the fact that being Catholic is a huge part of who I am, but it isn't all I have to say about who I am. I was thinking recently about how I'd answer if anyone were to ask what religion I belong to. I decided this is the response that comes closest to the truth: “I'm a Catholic who has worshiped at an Episcopal church for the past year, and I don't know where I'm going from here.”

I went to the Episcopal church down the road this morning. Once again, despite my misgivings about whether that congregation is the right one for me in the long run, I just felt glad to be there.

An interesting contrast to last evening, when I took my sister to the Catholic church in town and felt nonstop grumpy, finding fault with the priest, the music, and a particular individual in the congregation who is someone I don't want to see or talk to. (Long story there, obviously.) The last straw: When Mass ended they gave everyone a wooden heart stamped with a crown of thorns, which we are supposed to carry around during Lent to remind us of something--I didn't exactly understand what--and then burn at the Easter vigil to symbolize something else.

So now the cross that has served as our central symbol for the past 2,000 years isn't meaningful enough for the 21st century? And we propose to replace it with something that looks like a Valentine craft project gone awry? Hmmm.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Where shall the word be found, where will the word / Resound?

Suffering as I do from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the number of churches with which I have some affiliation or affection, I started this day undecided about where to observe Ash Wednesday, though I was inclined to attend the late-afternoon Episcopal service at the university or perhaps the evening service at the Episcopal church down the road.

Then on the way to work I powered up the old iPod to listen to the daily readings and was hit with (and troubled by) this verse:

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

Joel 2:12-13

I heard it it as an admonition to go back to the Catholic church. Anyone not steeped in that peculiar Catholic blend of guilt, obligation, and joy at recognizing and acquiescing to divine leading wouldn't have heard it that way, I'm sure, but I couldn't help myself. I wrestled with it all the way to work.

Sometimes when I'm trying to make some decision I'll have a sudden and direct insight about what I should do, but later that idea won't seem so obvious and eventually I'll decide it was wrong. Then again, sometimes I'll have one of those same sudden and direct insights and it will stay with me until I give into it. I don't know how this one will turn out in the long run, but for today I gave in and went to the noontime Catholic Mass at the university chapel, which was not one of the services I'd even been considering.

Was it mountaintop? No, but it was nice enough. It was fairly well-attended, and one of the nicest things about it was the Gregorian chant provided by Schola Cantorum, a group of Princeton students. I'm glad I went, though I don't particularly want to go back tomorrow.

I don't "want" to go back at all, actually. I realized while thinking things over in the car that this is definitely not how I want all of this to turn out, though I'm trying to keep my mind and heart open to what God is saying to me. I think maybe that was the first time I had such a clear understanding about how I really feel, despite the lingering nostalgic longing I feel. I want to think that maybe the sad, sad events that unfolded in my former parish were God's way of telling me it would be all right to let go.

Anyway, still in the car, I was enjoying a podcast called "Catholic: Under the Hood." It noted that Ash Wednesday liturgies are some of the best attended of the year even though there's no obligation to attend. So you have all these people turning out just to have someone smear ashes on their forehead and announce that they're going to die, "which just goes to show that people always come if you give them something for free."

But seriously, I'm glad it's Lent. It might just be my favorite liturgical season, a little longer and a lot less hurried than Advent. It's never been a hard or unhappy time for me. It's a time for thinking about who I am, and working on becoming the person I want to be. It's a time for reaching closer to God.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday