Sunday, April 30, 2006

Time travel

As a corollary to my moratorium on thinking about religion, I also resolved to stop making mental lists of churches that must be visited before my investigation of religious options can be considered complete.

The new plan was to go wherever I felt drawn to be, so this morning, I found myself at the local Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church. I've been there twice before. It's a pretty little church, very traditional in appearance. It felt comfortably churchy, though I must admit that it does feel strange to find them doing things I haven't seen in a Roman Catholic church since I was a child--kneeling at the altar rail for communion, for example. Last time I visited, there was even a very traditionally dressed acolyte who held a paten under each chin.

It also feels like a seriously religious place, which I would like. My faith informs most things I do; I think that will be true no matter what I call myself. I am realizing through missing it that part of what I expect from a religious community is to be with others for whom the same is true and who are interested in reflecting on that, no matter what they call themselves. I felt right at home discussing the question Why Do Service? with people from the university who identified themselves as Presbyterian, Jewish, Hindu, and not-religious (but whose lives are definitely informed by what they believe).

The last time I was here was right before Lent, and the priest announced a long list of Lenten events. I asked on my way out if that schedule was written down somewhere, and he promised to email it to me but never did. I figured he'd lost my email address, or forgotten, or both. Things like that happen to all of us, and I wasn't particularly upset about it. I thought he'd probably forgotten me, too, by now, but when it was over he managed to greet me by name--extra credit for that.

(I admit feeling a small tug toward the local Roman Catholic church this morning, but when a quick check of the online schedule revealed that I would have been headed for First Communion, I squelched the thought. Maybe there isn't much I feel clear about with regards to religion these days, but I knew I wasn't up for that.)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Next time I'll try a moratorium on moratoria

I decided this week to declare a moratorium on thinking about religion, but obviously I didn't stick to it or I wouldn't be writing this. And twice in the past two days I've been involved in extended discussions about the subject. Talk about falling off the wagon big time.

Yesterday, I had a long chat with the Episcopal chaplain at the university. Today, I spent an hour and a half in an inquirer's class at the Episcopal church I've been attending. Yesterday was like being in college. Today was nice in its own way but it was more like being in confirmation class. I hadn't realized until yesterday just how much I needed to have a conversation like the one I had with the chaplain.

We covered a range of topics, from church history to Biblical exegesis to theology and liturgy, not to mention the personal stuff. It was really very interesting and informative. I came away with a couple of books I am looking forward to reading, which I should have more time for now that we are coming into the last week of class at the university. I wasn't really looking for advice and he didn't offer much beyond the suggestion that I might want to proceed with caution. As if I were ever anything but cautious.

This afternoon we gathered in the church basement, where there are no windows, sad on such a beautiful spring day. There were six of us, including two boys who came with their mother. We didn't speak about ourselves in depth, so my impressions might not be accurate, but they all seemed to have chosen to join this church mostly because it feels like a nice place to be. And indeed it does. So nice that I keep coming back, even as I'm deciding it isn't the right place for me. My heart goes in one direction while my head stays someplace else (and sometimes vice versa).

It was interesting to note that every single one of us potential Episcopal converts had some previous affiliation with the Roman Catholic church--as did the priest from yesterday's discussion, who was raised Catholic and converted in his 20s. Two of the women had followed their Catholic husbands into the church and then back out again. One had been raised Catholic but had followed her husband into the Episcopal church. I was thinking that Catholics are like ants; no one worries about how many don't make it because there are still so many left when they're gone. The two women whose husbands were Catholic had previously attended the local Catholic mega-church; one commented that there were times when she would look around and realize she didn't know a single other person there. Been there; did that.

The priest brought a selection of books down to the class and told us to go ahead and borrow anything we wanted. I was the only one to accept the offer. More books; yeah! (And so much for that moratorium on thinking about religion.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A little rain must fall

After a string of dry weeks it has rained for most of the past 36 hours, heavily much of that time. We lost power a little after 7 am, usually a sign that a tree limb has let go somewhere and fallen across the wires, but I guess God must have wanted me in church this morning because I woke up without an alarm, and my hair wasn't even standing straight up as it usually is in the morning, so I could leave the house without benefit of a shower and not look like the hapless victim of a strong electric shock, power or no.

That left only one question: Which church to attend. I'd made up my mind and unmade it again at least eight times already (I was considering four different churches) before I finally got in the car and headed for the little Episcopal church where I celebrated Easter. I really had planned to use this Sunday to try out another of the churches that's on my list for consideration, but what drew me back was something bad that happened at this church last week, something involving a breach of trust (almost certainly) on the part of a member who hasn't been identified yet. I won't bother with the details here, because it isn't my story to tell, but it seemed right to be there with the rest of the community during this sad time as I had been there last week for the joyous celebration of Easter.

It hardly raining as I drove, but the sky was still a dark grey that made the pale yellow-greens of trees newly in leaf stand out all the more. Inside, the electric lights and the candles seemed that much brighter, too, but what really struck me was the high spirits of everyone gathered there. I'd forgotten that last night was a big church dinner that I'd decided not to attend, perhaps mistakenly, because it didn't seem to me that it was really my celebration. At any rate, no matter how sad anyone felt inside about what had happened at the church, the spirit that dominated the morning was their pleasure in being together.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Who are you, anyway?

I think every one of us has story to tell, and the urge to tell it.

I don't know, maybe I'm generalizing too broadly based on my own feelings, but I've been thinking about personal stories since Sunday morning when I looked around at the people in church and realized how many of their stories I was beginning to know. I think a lot of what we humans do is driven by the desire to be known, by each other and ultimately by God. Lord, you have searched me and you know me. I'm sure it isn't an original idea, but I've been thinking that part of what defines a community in this context is knowing and honoring each other's stories.

When I returned the campus Episcopal chaplain's book last week, he asked again if I wanted to get together sometime and talk. As a matter of fact, there isn't an Episcopal priest I've met anywhere in my explorations during the past year who hasn't made the same offer. I don't think this is bound up with being Episcopal; surely it has more to do with the size of the congregation. When you know who your own people are, you can also recognize the stranger among them, a necessary first step toward welcoming him or her.

But how can I not compare how it feels to have someone come right up and say, Welcome, it's nice to meet you, I'd like to hear your story if you'd like to share it, with the typical reception I've received at the various Catholic churches I've visited in the same period--which is to say, no reception at all: Don't know who you are, don't care, doesn't much matter if you come back again or not.

Or, from the Catholic church I left: Don't know where you went, don't care, doesn't much matter ...

Is it wrong to want to be known, and to matter?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter

Two days later I am back in the same place, but this time it is full of people. As it was meant to be, I am thinking. It's a glorious spring morning, perfect for Easter. Birds are singing, trees and flowers seem to be exploding back to life all at once, and most of the people are dressed up, too.

We are a little late and we can hear the opening hymn from the parking lot. We're greeted at the door by the woman who seems to me to be the heart and soul of the place; she assures us that there are still plenty of seats inside. All around me are people I know, not as old friends, but as people I do care about. There are the couple whose grown son died recently, the couple who lost a daughter to leukemia last year, the couple who are expecting a baby soon, the alcoholic who has asked us to pray for his recovery, the two women who did the Lenten Bible study with me, the girl who always brings the dog she is raising to be a seeing eye dog, and others I recognize, whether or not I've learned their names yet.

I am in the midst of a real community and I have a place in it. Whether it's a permanent place, or whether the lesson is that I will find community wherever I go--that's a question for another day.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Better to light one ...

This morning I am back to pondering the question of whether God intends to send us meaning through small events in our lives.

We had an overnight prayer vigil at the little Episcopal church I've been attending for the past year, and a series of us signed up to spend an hour in church across the time from the end of the Maundy Thursday service to Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at noon. I put my name down for 8 am.

I was glad to be there. From my seat inside I could see the rolling field that was one of the things that drew me to the church in the first place. I could see flowers, and trees just barely putting out their first pale green leaves. I could hear birds. I felt alone, and yet not alone. It was a chance to look around and experience being in this church in a way that isn't possible when other people are there.

There were instructions for an hour-long guided prayer experience, and suggestions for an unguided hour. Either way, you were supposed to start by lighting a candle. There were several still burning on a table at the entrance, left behind by earlier participants, with a few from the night before that had already burned down to nothing, and I was moved because I thought they really did convey the sense of a communal prayer in which we all left something behind even after our hour was up and we departed.

There was just one problem for me. There were no more candles to light.

I thought, well, this proves I'm not meant to be part of this community. There's no place for me here, I really don't belong. And I wept. I laughed, too, and my tears didn't last long, but I think if I'd chosen to I could have gathered all my church-related hurts and frustrations from the past two years into that moment and cried for the entire hour.

But I chose to laugh, because my response to this dilemma really was pretty funny. I kept looking for the damn candles. I mean, it was perfectly obvious that all of the candles on the table at the entrance were either burning or burned out. It was perfectly obvious that there were no other candles on the table, under the table, or anywhere near the table. There was no candle for me, but I must have spent a full five minutes looking and looking again to see if I couldn't find one. So typical. Jesus might have seek and ye shall find, but I mostly just seem to seek. I sat down and then got back up again after a few minutes to look one more time, but there were still no candles. Finally, I gave up and settled in to pray.

The hour went quickly, and it was a good hour. It felt right to be there.

I looked around, and after a while I got up and walked around. I needed to take a thorough look at the church, at all its nooks and crannies, to experience it fully as a physical place. At one point I was standing in the middle aisle facing the back of the church, which is to say facing the entrance doors, and I kept backing up to get a better look up into what in another church would be the choir loft, though this congregation uses it as a refuge for people with very small children or people who otherwise wish to sit away from the folks downstairs (for reasons I think I understand but not fully). As I backed up I realized I was getting closer to the altar, to the place where the priest might be standing and facing the congregation during a service, and just as I was beginning to feel like a real imposter I heard something start clicking--a motion detector on the back wall, I think. Properly warned, I sat back down in my seat, wondering if this was another message from heaven.

Finally, someone arrived to take the next hour. I looked back and saw her standing there with matches in hand, looking for a candle to light, and I whispered that there were no more. She said that was OK, she'd go find some back in the sacristy. I wanted to tell her to light one for me, but I didn't. I guess my presence will just have to speak for itself.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The company of women

A couple of times in the past year I've driven past my old Catholic church and expected to feel a sharp, sudden sadness over losing that place. And of course I do feel profoundly saddened by what I've lost, but it's much deeper and more complex than that pang of nostalgia you sometimes experience at the sight of someplace that was once important in your life and no longer is.

It hit me full force yesterday when I was out on my bike after work, in what is new cycling territory for me. I was enjoying a meandering ride and found myself turning onto the road that leads to the retreat house where a small group of women from my parish used to gather for a weekend every year. When the building where we stayed came into view, I felt my chest tighten until it hurt. We made it through many years together but it's been two years now since the group got together. The numbers were going down anyway as we all got older; a couple of the women had died, others had health problems, and a few had moved away. The catastrophe back in the old parish was the final blow.

I don't know what the folks at the retreat house thought of us; our routine was not entirely traditional. Ours was certainly not a silent retreat. If anything, there were times when I would have appreciated a little more silence; if you wanted to be left alone with your own thoughts and prayers, you had to go into the chapel or take yourself away to someplace on the grounds where no one would find you. Our schedule included the usual conferences where a retreat leader would talk with us, and we had Mass together, and time set aside for walks along the canal or visits to the magnificent chapel at the retreat center, which used to be a seminary for boys from high school age up. (I think there still is a seminary on the grounds, though the high school section is gone and the overall numbers are way down.)

Then, at the end of each day, we'd have a wine and cheese gathering, where we'd laugh and gossip and tell stories long into the night. A couple of times we tried getting together in the "off season" between retreats, but it never seemed to work out due to schedule conflicts and so forth. But when we gathered together again at the retreat house each year, it felt as if we'd never been apart. That community of women sustained me in the church for a long time, and I miss them.


The Lord gave the word; great was the company of women who bore the tidings.
  • Psalm 68:11

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Loving the questions

I returned Finding Home to the university chaplain yesterday afternoon with the comment that I found it interesting but hadn't been able to locate myself in any of the profiles of Roman Catholics who joined the Episcopal church, even though there were small points I could relate to. Like most of those people, I've found it easy (maybe even surprisingly so) to embrace the Episcopal church. Where I lost them (and this could be a result of the author's bias) was that I didn't have any sense they found it difficult to let go of the Roman Catholic connection.

So here it is the last Wednesday in Lent and I am not any closer to resolving my dilemma. I did not, as I had hoped, find one church to settle in for the season. I did not, as I had expected, leave behind the Episcopal church where I have worshiped since the beginning of Lent last year. I plan to be there for the Maundy Thursday Eucharist tomorrow night, and again for my hour Friday morning in the parish prayer vigil. I expect to be there Easter Sunday, too, unless my family comes to visit, in which case we all will attend the local Catholic church together. I'm planning to join the inquirer's class at the same Episcopal church later this month, even though I don't think I'll ask to be received into the church when the bishop visits next fall.

And so I find myself wondering if I've made any progress at all this Lent. Maybe yes, because I feel more assured that I am where God wants me to be, no matter how hard it is for me to understand why I'm here? Maybe no, because I feel no closer to being in the settled place I want to find?

(I admitted to someone out loud for the first time ever yesterday that I feel drawn to priesthood, which obviously would have to mean priesthood in the Episcopal church. Whoa, boy, but we aren't going to go there now!)

Though it isn't really a prayer, I find myself praying Rilke's words:
Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it, Live along some distant day into the answers.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Added later: While I was driving to work it came back to me that, like a good problem-solver, I'd just tried to evaluate Lent on the basis of how much "progress" I'd made. Not exactly loving the questions ...

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Finding home, continued

I was reminded this morning of the Easters of my childhood. We might have called them Easter outfits but our new clothes were rarely properly warm enough for Easter Sunday itself, leaving us the choice of hiding our finery (and squashing our corsages) under the winter coats we were so very tired of wearing, or freezing as we hurried to and from church without them. Easter may yet be warm, but my computer reported a brisk 32 degrees when I headed out for Palm Sunday services this morning.

As I was leaving, Chris asked if the Episcopalians also read the long Gospel for the occasion, and I couldn't remember though I guessed that they must. But I couldn't recall standing for an extended period last year, when it would have been even harder for me than usual because my sore foot was still bothering me so much. Turns out that just like Roman Catholics they do read the long Gospel, with individuals from the congregation taking the various parts and the rest of us filling the role of "the people." However, we all sat through it instead of standing, which I suppose some people would cite as evidence that the Episcopal church (or at least this Episcopal church) had sold out, but which I certainly appreciated as it allowed me to concentrate more on the words we were reading than on my own personal discomfort.

Sometime during the sermon, or maybe just afterward, I found myself wondering how it would feel if I asked to be accepted as a member there--which surprised me not only because it's probably the first time I've thought seriously about taking that step but also because it's a possibility I (thought I had?) already pretty definitely ruled out. This particular church has given me so much over the past year that I know it will always have a special place in my heart no matter where I wind up, but (a) it's not in my own community, and I think I should be settling in closer to home, and (b) it doesn't feel "churchy" enough for me, by which I am referring to both the physical building and also to my perception of the congregation as more involved in the extended social aspects of being church than in the spiritual.

One of the things I identified with in the book I mentioned yesterday (Finding Home: Stories of Roman Catholics Entering the Episcopal Church) was how often these new Episcopalians mentioned being deeply moved by the words of the Book of Common Prayer. I've had that same experience, and been surprised by it. Of course I did come to the Episcopal church for its liturgy. I expected it to feel familiar and it did, but to be honest I thought it would probably seem somewhat inferior to what I was used to. Yet there have been many moments when I've found it more eloquent, moving, and dignified than what I'd experienced in the Roman Catholic church, so I suppose in that sense it has been like "finding home" for me.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Immanence v. transcendence: My question exactly

I just finished reading a book called Finding Home: Stories of Roman Catholics Entering the Episcopal Church, by Christopher L. Webber, which I borrowed from the Episcopal chaplain at the university. I had never heard of this book until one day when I was browsing on Amazon.com and it popped up as a title I might be interested in. I was, but it turned out to be out of print and when I tried to track it down through my usual sources for used books, the cheapest copy I could find was thirty or forty dollars, and I decided I wasn't that interested. Later I asked the chaplain if he might know where I could borrow a copy, thinking he probably had access to some Episcopal library somewhere, and it turned out he had a copy of his own. (Leaving me wondering if I ought to interpret that and the Amazon notice as signs from heaven; see yesterday's entry.)

Anyway, it was an interesting book, but not as interesting as I had hoped it would be. I found common ground with the folks Webber profiled but I did not identify strongly with any of them. I did find myself irritated by Webber's slightly smug tone. I've always felt defensive when people criticize the Roman Catholic church without really understanding it, and that's what I thought was happening here.

I did find two particularly interesting passages:

Discussing theological differences among Anglicans: "Such differences of opinion are tolerable (though sometimes distressing!) because Anglicans find their united in worship rather than in statements of faith and principle."

and

"Where the mystic tends to overemphasize the immanence of God, the systematic theologian may prefer to stress God's transcendence. As we noted earlier, the systematic theologian may also have some professional interests to protect: if God is in all things, perhaps the institutional church is not so important and the sacramental system is not so necessary."

Which is where I find myself heading in my own thinking these days. Since my Catholic spirituality was so strongly rooted in the Eucharist, I found myself missing it very much at first. The question of whether God was really present in the bread and wine in the Episcopal church was an important question for me. But over the past year I've had a strong sense of the constant presence of God both in and beyond church, and it has indeed led me to wonder if the sacramental system that had been so important to me was really so very necessary after all.

No answers to that one; still wondering.

Friday, April 07, 2006

On going to church and finding nothing there

I am so desperate for understanding these days that I've taken to parsing my experiences looking for hidden meaning in them. I've been thinking a lot recently, for example, about the "vision" I had in a prayerful moment some 25 years ago.

This is how I wrote about it at the time: "My mind does not usually turn to what I think of as traditional Christian symbols when I meditate, but several of those symbols kept popping up in different forms during worship-sharing this morning. Then I fell into a state that resembled a a trance or sleep. Just before we broke the silence to begin the workshop, I heard a voice say, "They are buoyed by the knowledge that he lived, and though he has gone away he remains with them in spirit and will come again." I do not know where it came from; it was certainly quite different from a consciously provoked or even allowed thought. Afterwards, I felt refreshed, but also surprised and grateful."

Over the years I've held onto this as a strong sign pointing me toward the Catholic church. But how then to understand that numinous experience I had in an Episcopal church a year or so ago, when the priest stood at an altar set in front of an open door on a warm spring day and raised the elements, with light streaming from the sky behind, and I was so intensely aware of the presence of God I felt almost overcome by it?

This morning I went up to Mass at the Catholic church nearby, or at least I tried to go to Mass. I had been there on Wednesday, too, responding to some tug I felt in that direction. I found it pleasant enough to be there, but was interested to notice that I didn't experience any nostalgic longing to return on a regular basis, so I was surprised to feel drawn in that direction again this morning. I drove up to church and got there a little before 8:30 a.m., the time of Mass on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (it's in the evening on Tuesday and Thursday). I was only a few minutes early so I was surprised to find only two cars in the parking lot. When I went inside, the chapel used for weekday Masses was dark and empty. I did find two people kneeling in the main church, so I went in and sat down there.

After a while the priest came out and lit the candles, which seemed to promise Mass sometime soon, but when 8:40 came and it still hadn't started, I was beginning to worry about getting to work and so I got up and left. Gradually it occurred to me that it was First Friday, when they bring all the elementary school kids over and start Mass at 9 for their benefit. I should have figured this out right away, since this has happened to me before, which is odd considering how rarely I go there.

I got to enjoy a few prayerful moments sitting quietly in church, anyway, but still I couldn't help wondering what meaning I was supposed to take from going to church and finding nothing happening there.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

WWJG? (Where would Jesus go?)

So how did I come to find myself seriously considering the possibility of leaving the Catholic church? It wasn't because I stopped believing in God or the sacraments, or because all of a sudden I couldn't accommodate the discrepancy between the official position and my own leanings on issues such as the ordination of women. I didn't really want to go. I love the church for what it can be at its very best, and for all of the wonderful people who call it home.

Good Catholic people have been my support and inspiration all of my life. Sadly, what developed at my former Catholic parish was a situation where good Catholic people were disregarded and disrespected at every level from the local church up to and including the bishop himself. Somehow propping up a foolish pastor became the most important thing. He was willing to stand by and watch a parish community be torn apart rather than admit he'd made a mistake, and those above him were willing to stand by and let it happen if that was the cost of covering for him.

I just can't believe this was what Jesus had in mind.