Our retired pastor joined us for dinner a week before Christmas and we had the opportunity to celebrate in the spirit of the season. We talked about the importance of family traditions and why they provide so much meaning in our lives. He loves to play the piano and is quite talented – so we ended up singing Christmas carols in the living room as he played songs from memory. Even though I wouldn’t know a C sharp from an F flat, all of this Dickens era activity put me in the Christmas spirit and prompted me to think about our family traditions. We celebrate the joy of the holidays with a secret Santa gift exchange (complete with poems), a “home and home” set of dinners with close friends, a family walk with the dog, and a Skype session with family celebrating at my Mom’s house. And we always go to church together. This last tradition may seem obvious but my mind has been noodling in the background on the meaning of church for several months now – so it’s time to bring that thinking to the light of day.
When our pastor retired, the Archbishop appointed a new priest to serve our community. And being Catholic, I think the general presumption was that the community would learn to appreciate the unique talents of the new pastor and adapt accordingly. Unfortunately, institutional leaders don’t seem to understand or appreciate the way many of us experience church. It is not some “plug and play” system where you can change important pieces and expect everything to work properly. Instead, it is a living, breathing organism that feeds and supports itself in the way all communities do. When you change an important piece, a complex set of reactions occur and the community changes. All of which is a long way to say we left our local church and now attend a parish across the bridge in Seattle. We have found a new home that enriches us in important ways even though we attend mass less frequently than when the church was just around the corner.
So what is church all about? Is it about the tradition of the mass – the repetition that enables me to experience it in almost any language? Perhaps it is more about the Eucharist or the Homily? And how should I think about the directives we receive from the Pope, the Archbishop or our pastor? I’ve gone to church my entire life – for long periods every week and at other times with more irregularity – and I’ve never managed to crystallize the “why” of church. Just when I think I have a deeper understanding and have climbed to the mountain top, some new experience changes my perception and I slide backwards like a never-ending game of Chutes and Ladders. And while I’m Catholic, I don’t think these questions are uniquely Roman in origin – places of worship have cast this spell since the beginning of mankind.
My current thinking is that church is some mystical combination of faith, family, human nature, institution, and community that serves our unique needs at any given time. While I can’t be certain, I suspect temple and synagogue are the ecumenical representation of the same experience. When we need comfort, it is in abundance. When we need encouragement, it is forthcoming. When we make mistakes, they are forgiven. When we need to learn, wisdom is provided. When we celebrate life, baptisms, weddings, and even funerals are there. The church I’ve come to love is both building and community. It is about a certain faith but somehow provides sanctuary for all who open its doors. It is a place for solemn quiet and unrelenting joy. Church is the ultimate demonstration of our humanity and yet remains a deep expression of the divine within us.
As we see far too frequently, the institutions of religion can fail us…but the church will always be there. I’ve been traveling on the weekends recently but look forward to attending mass at St. Joseph’s this week. I wonder what I’ll find…