I’ve been looking for God again. Every decade or so, I go through some inner reorganization that seems to involve a huge shake-up and resettling of my spirituality. I was raised in a very mainstream conservative Presbyterian church. Now that I look back on it, I am grateful for all the many activities and experiences I had through the church to ground and educate me as a kid and young teenager. I look for that sense of belonging-to-place to this day.
There was definitely something about the building itself and the mystery of the sanctuary that seems to have gotten into my very cells and is the foundation of my idea of “church.” The church was built of granite, with a slate roof. Inside it had huge wooden rafters that held the vaulted ceiling and attached to the stone sides of the building. The colors of the many stained glass windows seemed to add a pulse of life to the air. A red carpet led up the center aisle from the carved oak doors at the rear of the sanctuary to the altar. Between the banks of organ pipes and over the choir members’ heads, there were more beautiful windows. I loved the music and the voices and even the smell of whatever was used to clean the wooden pews and the floor.
Certainly there were grander places, more magnificent, more stunning in their architecture. I fell in love with St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and the sheer majesty of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, also in New York. The organ there could play notes so low you heard the vibration with your body, not your ears. The visceral experience of such a place stays with me to this day. A more modern church, no matter how beautifully built, does not call to me in nearly the same way.
Of course it is also the form of the service and the ritual, combined with the familiarity of the hymns, even the drone and pace of the minister’s voice that is comforting, too, but all that pales by comparison to the stone and the wood and the colors of the glass.
As my spirituality has grown and expanded to include so much more than the strict Christianity in which I was raised, I of course have learned to appreciate the beauty of other holy spaces, both indoors and outside. The awe the creators of those spaces meant to inspire certainly moves me, too. But my taste for the small stone cave sort of place is still there.
I went with my friend and her daughter to an Episcopal Church service this past Sunday. She has been longing to reconnect to her Catholic roots; to bring her children in to some faith, too. Her beautiful daughter is nine, if I remember correctly.
“Come with me this Sunday to our church,” she said the other day as we sat talking. “I know you have been wanting to reconnect with God in a different way. I think you will like all the ritual.” I am familiar with the Episcopal Church. I know its history. I’ve been to many services. I thought, hopefully, it might spark my interest in church again.
The sanctuary was indeed beautiful, though the walls and vaulted ceiling were angular and made of wood. The floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows that flanked the altar were filled with light. The intonation and inflection of the priest was familiar, homey, thoughtful. But nothing grabbed me. “What was I thinking?” I thought as I sat there. “If I want a mainstream, 1950’s style Christian church service, I belong in a Presbyterian church, the seat of my beginning.”
When it came time for communion and the congregants to go forward, I stayed in the pew. Even though the program said “all persons who have been baptized, regardless of denomination” may participate, I didn’t. Instead I watched my friend and her daughter go forward to receive the bread and the wine. My friend and her young daughter knelt at the altar and waited for the priest. Shortly he stood before them. I watched him rest his hand on the girl’s head and speak to her. He lowered his face close to hers as he spoke. He touched her hair a couple of times. Suddenly I knew exactly why I was there, witnessing this ritual.
Once, when I was probably the same age as my friend’s daughter, I had spent the night at a friend’s house and been invited to attend church with her family the next morning. They belonged to the Episcopal Church in town, a mile or two away from my family’s church. It was one of those beautiful stone buildings with colorful stained glass, too. It was smaller and a little more intimate than the space of my familiar sanctuary. It seemed a little darker and more cave-like. Perfect, in other words.
In my own church I was not allowed to take communion until I had joined the church. So when my friend’s family all got up to go forward to take communion, I thought I couldn’t go. “You can come, too,” my friend whispered. “When you get to the front, just kneel and cross your hands in front of your chest and bow your head. The priest will bless you.”
I did as I was told. My elbows rested on the polished oak rail. My knees on the velvet pad near the floor. I bowed my head and crossed my hands over my chest. The second I felt the priest’s hand on my head it started. A flash of warmth flew through my body. His words were soft and ancient. I had no conscious understanding of what he was saying. I was no longer in that space, that church, that time.
A brilliant light enveloped me. I felt absolute peace, and protection, but mostly that loving warmth. As quickly as it came, it passed. The priest moved on to the next person, totally unaware of what had happened to me. I realized no one else knew, either. But I surely did. To me, in that second, perhaps because I was young and open to it, I felt touched by God.
It’s that connection I want when I go on my spiritual search. I constantly seek the hand of my Higher Power in my life. Sometimes my yearning for it is more tangible than others. I come closest to it, I think, when I use some of the shamanic practices I have been taught. I love to set up a little altar, or clear the space before someone comes to have a session with me.
In the morning, if I pray and meditate and get into just the right mental space, I can touch it fleetingly again.
It isn’t the church, or even the religion that brings it to me. It’s so much bigger than that. And it’s only by Grace it comes to me. Most of the time I’m just an ordinary mortal, doing the best I can in life.
On days like this one, however, when the memory is so tangible, it is hard to settle for “ordinary.”