I am paying attention although sometimes that just means I am aware of my inattention.
Words float around in the high space above. Sunlight through stained glass illuminates the pews across from us. The scent of perfumed parishioners and powdered babies mingles with incense past and, oddly, Old Spice. All is familiar, routine.
The words drop from above, and I focus on them, or I try to.
“… let us give thanks to the Lord.”
Two boys of the same age stand in the row with me, my wife beyond them. I look down at the closest one as he says, “It is right and just.” He doesn’t just mumble or mouth the words, he enunciates them, slightly jutting his head and chin forward and up as he says “right” and “just.”
He is 6 years old. He knows these words and has a sweet, beginner’s understanding of the depth and power of concepts like righteousness and justice.
The celebrant continues: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.”
The same boy, mouthing silently now, recites the sentence, his cadence and commas in perfect order.
Of course, since we are in this holy place, all I can think is: “Holy crap, he knows all the words to the Mass.” That may seem, well, frankly, it may be sacrilegious. And that may be my point, but I’ll come back to it.
A few years later a story of those same two boys, coming out of their religious ed class, and …
+ + +
You know what?
I can’t. At least I can’t very well.
You see, I had this all planned out with notes and quotes and heartfelt stories, but I don’t think that’s going to work. I had every hope of defending my faith, an unpopular one these days, and explaining why we continue to go to church every Sunday. The problem is, I’m not sure.
Is “because I always have” a good enough answer? Is the memory of those Sundays of my childhood, spent with family and friends in a modest Protestant church in small-town middle America enough to explain my presence now in a bigger Catholic church in a big town not far from that old, white steepled church of my youth?
Is “our sons have been nearly every Sunday and Holy Day of their entire lives” any kind of real reason to keep showing up? Has it just become habit? A routine that perhaps needs to be reexamined? Has it become a thing we do because we simply think we should?
Sometimes I look around our church and wonder why row after row of families make the effort to be there, week after week, and I wonder if the effort is still worth it. Are they all – are we all – crazy for our faith and ardent in our belief? Are we pious and good and righteous and full of the fire of the Holy Spirit? I know these people … many of them are not.
I’m not, particularly.
Then, again, I ask: Why are we all here? What’s to be gained? We can teach these morals to our children without the stained-glass structure, without the ritual and rules. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” isn’t too difficult a concept, is it? Why those doors? Why this pew? Why that altar?
+ + +
From just beyond that altar the words float into the high clerestory on a melody both ancient and modern, chanted both by monks centuries ago and on the vinyl recording of Godspell I spun in the ’70s. I focus on the words: “For all things living, You have made good. Harvest of sown fields, Fruits of the orchard. Hay from the mown fields, Blossom and wood.” Such poetry – good, wood, sown, mown — such serenity, such simplicity.
Later, a story from a book marked Mark. The main character heals a man’s deafness and speech impediment by sticking his finger in his ear and spitting on his tongue as he “groans” toward heaven saying “Ephphatha!” the Greek form of the Aramaic word meaning “be opened.” What a beautiful word, what an important command: be opened.
Sometimes there is fragrant incense or the scent of the Baptismal oil chrism. There is the taste of wine and bread. A high school boy sings a “Hallelujah” and cantors a psalm with growing confidence, his modern style counterpointing the sonorous tones of the celebrant.
Just this Sunday, I looked over at my sons: engaged, attentive, comfortable. My wife, beyond them, smiled at me as a boy – a mancub, really – leaned against her, peaceful, as he has been for as long as he remembers. I thought of how, well, how damn beautiful it all was, this inundation of senses. But, that wasn’t all of it. I knew I was missing something.
I know that, for me, my religion is just a frame around my spirituality, more within, I’d say. I don’t mean this the wrong way, but, I don’t really care if the boys become followers of Christ, per se. Buddhism seems cool. Judaism is so long and rich. Islam so stunningly visual and respectful. Nihilism is nice and hedonism has its place. But I can’t teach all those ideas. I don’t know the languages.
Christianity is the picture frame I know and grew up with. I know the stories and the words and the songs of redemption and creation within this place, at this altar. Shouldn’t I want to pass that faith tradition on? No, really, I just want to show it to them.
And, perhaps in so doing, I am showing them beauty.
Maybe, someday far from now, they will sit in a concert hall or they will stand in an art gallery or they will overlook a great canyon. And they’ll remember. Maybe, they will feel the love of sons and daughters, wives and husbands, or hear the cries of lament and longing, and think back. A melody. A fountain. A wafer. A glass of madeira, incense on the wind.
My hope is that the sacred and beauty will become one for them. That Faith will be Hope; Love will be Beauty. God; Good. Peace, a Goodbye.
Am I being sacrilegious? Probably. Is this all bad theology? Yes. Is this piss-poor apologetics, indeed. I did, however, answer why we will be there next Sunday.
Now please don’t tell my pastor I wrote this. Peace
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Peebles left a 30-year career in the restaurant business to become a stay-at-home dad to twin boys. He writes a blog, I Hope I Win a Toaster, that makes little sense. He coaches sometimes, volunteers at the schools, plays guitar, and is a damn good homemaker. He believes in hope, dreams, and love … but not computers.
Man in church pew photo: Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash
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