Although I was raised having to go to Catholic Mass every week, I do not go nor do I make my children go regularly. In fact, the last time I regularly went to church was probably before I got my driver’s license at age 17 because once I had that baby in the back pocket of my Calvin Kleins, I was able to tell my mother I’d gone to 5 o’clock mass when in fact, I’d gone to get ice cream with some of the other sinners…I mean friends, and walked around town. Someone would go in first and grab some weekly bulletins that I would later unfold from previously mentioned Calvin Klein’s and oh so casually leave on the kitchen table to serve as proof of my attendance. I’m sure I wasn’t fooling my mother but when you have 4 or more kids, which we Catholics were known for back in the day, the ruse was good enough most of the time.
My kids have come to understand regular church attendance to mean twice a year. Christmas and Easter. I like to hit the big ones. Birth, death…resurrection. (Can I just tell you how terrifying THAT whole image was to me growing up? The thought that someone dead could be undead can really mess with a 7 year old’s head.)
This year though, the kids will get away with only going to mass once, since on Easter Sunday morning we were flying 30,000 feet above our church at approximately 8:30am, watching from our Economy Plus seats the plethora of little girls, in new Easter frocks and shiny black Mary Janes, hurriedly entering the church doors because it is almost never, ever conveniently warm enough for frocking around in frocks on Easter.
This year instead of struggling to get to church on time to get a seat because all us Catholic-lites show up on the big ones and making it through the priest’s eternal eulogy by watching the antics of the little kids around us – a fiesty 3 year old all sugared up on Captain Crunch is always a crowd pleaser – we were struggling to get our luggage in the overhead compartment.
Because this year, instead of going to Easter Sunday Mass, we went to Miami Beach. A little less girls in frocks and Mary Janes, and more Girls Gone Wild.
If I had to pinpoint the exact reason why I don’t feel motivated to attend mass with any discipline, besides the Catholic church’s epic systemic devaluation of women and gays, its close-mindedness to birth control, abortion, divorce and anyone not fitting their description of morality, it would be that I don’t find it to be indicative of meaningful prayer or reflection.
What with all the singing, chanting, reciting, sitting, standing, kneeling, and hand signaling – how can you reflect in all that commotion? It’s all so busy and loud. I do not particularly enjoy busy and loud. I suffer from over sensitivity. Maybe even clinically, although that is self diagnosed and probably being dramatic. My idea of hell on Earth is Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Crowds, noise, limited bathroom facilities and temperatures below 32 degrees? Pass.
My life is already a circus of distraction. What I need is a removal from those things more often.What I crave is a time and place where I can escape the constant stimuli of my life. A place where I can catch my breath and let in some fresh air. A place where I can pause sufficiently enough to stop, close my eyes and go inward. A place where I can escape the prison of my small self-obsessed self and pray to something bigger and to discover for myself what is true, not as it preached to me but as I divine it for myself. As Joan Chittister says, “This world is a high on technology, short on time, and starved for reflection.” I find reflection hard to do with little Johnny making vrmm, vrmm sounds with his toy truck on the pew in front of me.
Cell phones too – there is always one…
To be sure, the church is a vehicle of faith that satisfies many but it is certainly not the beginning, middle and end of it. As Rumi pointed out, “There are hundreds ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
You are not supposed to love churches so much if you are a church dodger but I do. Empty ones that is. A different intent emerges in an empty church. To me, this intent is not to worship something greater than ourselves but rather the possibility of communicating with something greater than ourselves. And maybe more importantly, the possibility of communicating with that something greater within ourselves. This possibility is what I feel when I sit in an empty church.
I used to work a few blocks from Trinity Church downtown near Wall Street years ago and then later near St. Patricks on 5th Avenue. On my lunch hours, when I wasn’t being called to visit Century 21 (the department store offering high end designer labels at discounted prices, not the real estate office) or Saks (the department store offering high end designer labels at gunpoint), I would often feel called to these high holy places of ethereal sounds as if personally invited. Just to sit and escape the hustle and bustle of the city outside or maybe just to escape the hustle and bustle in my mind. I would feel the silence envelope me the moment I crossed the threshold from the sidewalk to the narthex and my whole body would breathe a quiet, deep breath.
An empty church is a church I can pray in. An empty church is one where I can imagine God is near, or at least true and I can communicate from the heart. Because that is all prayer really is, a communication from one’s heart to that something which surpasses understanding.
Churches are good for prayer but so is a great big field, the deep, deep woods, floating in the ocean, or laying on the floor of your bathroom. Stained glass and crucifixes are optional. As Matisse said, “The essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.”
I call this something that I want to communicate with God, for convenience. Sometimes I call it the Universe. Those are my basic two. I don’t get hung up on what I or anyone else calls God anymore. For awhile I tried to be a bit more modern, new age and cool and stayed away from using the word God. I think because I wanted to separate myself from my church’s God or their church’s God. I didn’t want my God to be mixed up or confused with anyone else’s God. Those more judgy Gods or the ones that let you have sister wives.
When my son was younger and was beginning his confusion about what the whole “who, what… huh?” of God, I taught him to think of God as The Force from Star Wars. I was attemping to guide him away from the image of God as an old man in the heavens donning a grey beard, toga and a lightning bolt (why do little kids always imagine God as Zeus?), to that of a loving, energizing presence all around us. The good around us. I tried to explain, “The Force is everywhere. Good is in everything and everyone and in the spaces in between everything and everyone if you look for it. Believing in The Force is believing in good even when it is hidden by the Dark Side. The Force keeps us moving foward, through the darkest hours, through fighting the Empire waiting and wishing us on.” And because he got it, he said, “Maybe that is what the light saber is supposed to do, help us fight the Dark Side by shining more light.” George Lucas is a genius of galactic proportions.
Nowadays when I get the chance to talk about God to my kids, which is about how often we attend church, I liken God to Wifi. An invisible network of a higher vibration that we can choose to connect with or plug into when we are sane enough to remember to do it. When we are in a state of grace, when we dare to love, be courageous, be kind, be trusting, be compassionate, be forgiving, we get a strong signal. We are connected with God, to our right minds and this higher vibrational frequency. 5 bars. But when we are angry, jealous, hurtful, hateful, vengeful, pitiful and all the other “fuls” that make us feel like we couldn’t possibly be of the same species as Martin Luther King Jr., we lose service. Dead zone.
When I am lost with no service, when life has hurt me or I am the one doing the hurting, the best and only effective way I have found to get back to 5 bars, is to ask.
Prayer is asking, okay sometimes begging on the floor of my bathroom, to be raised back up and connected with my right mind, to my widsom that knows the answer, that knows the way. It’s the mind I imagine God would have me use more often than I manage which right now is approximately about 39% of the time. On a good day. It’s asking for a little more light by which to see things. For even just a tiny fleck of light to enter my scared and worried heart when I’m stuck.
Prayer isn’t asking for the situation to change or for them to change. It isn’t making a grocery list. “Let’s see, I need: 1) her to respect me 2) airfares to come down 3) that dog to stop barking and, because I’m not a complete asshole, 5) world hunger to end, ideally later today, preferably right after lunch. Thanks and Amen.” Prayer is asking for the only change that I have control over, it is asking that I change. Because when I change, when little flecks of light seep in, it’s quantum. Things begin to happen. Things begin to shift and loosen up. There is more space, more room for something new and fresh to enter. Things have a way of mysteriously falling into place, new ideas come easily, the next right thing to do becomes clear, the right people show up. And before you know it, you realize you are in a different galaxy light years away from the one you were stuck.
And faith, for me, is believing that if I do the asking the answering will always come. But (don’t you hate the but’s?) you have to be open for business. AND it takes patience. In Jesus’ life, the resurrection tooks 2 days but in our real lives, it can take weeks, months or years. Life and change take time. There are no shortcuts. Some people seem to understand this better than me. That God works in mysterious ways, not to mention agonizingly slow ways sometimes. I disagree with God on this and with the pace of how slowly I am evolving towards patience. I find it annoying and inconvenient, like when my daughter doesn’t text me back right away (or at all), but I am dealing with it. Mostly.
I do not believe anyone goes through life empty of belief, of faith – in something. We get free will so we get to choose what to believe in, what thoughts to go with. Of course, this can be our numero uno problemo. We can choose to believe that life is essentially good, as Pema Chodron says, “That our basic situation is joyful” or we can choose to believe in the opposite. But read the fine print carefully because whatever we choose to believe in, at the deepest center of our being, determines what we ourselves become and what we contribute to the whole.
Most of us started out believing life was essentially good. That we and others are essentially good. That good is all around us. In the spaces in between too. Rumi said, “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” And we did. We laughed a lot then, we skipped and jumped and tried to catch fireflies in our hands and rolled down grassy hills. We lived life each day so fully that we crashed into bed exhausted each night dreaming of what tomorrow would bring. We were so damn cute, we were so damn enthusiastic. I loved us then.
But then life hurt us somehow and in some way because life does that (nothing personal) and we decided something else. We decided that we had to protect ourselves from life instead of co-create something beautiful, albeit messy and imperfect, together. Life vs. Us. We decided to know this something else about life and this something else only. And rather than roll gleefully down grassy hills, catching flecks of light in our hands, we slid down that hill instead, our fingers gripping the earth. Down, down, all the way down, right into a mole hole.
And if you want to know only what you know, you get stuck in that mole hole. You say, “No, really, it’s comfortable and safe here. It’s warm, it’s dry. I don’t mind this little mole hole. I don’t mind that’s it’s dark and cramped. Really, it’s fine.” And you start to believe in that mole hole because like I said, everyone believes in something even if it is just mole holes. Considering current conditions in the world, your mole hole seems like a cracker jack idea. What with all the disease, greed, pollution, disaster, and heartache up there, not to mention Fox News. Where is the good?
You could really go for an Oreo right now. And they have Oreos up there. You really like an Oreo from time to time. With a glass of milk that you can dunk it into. Yeah, Oreos are good.
AND THERE IT IS! It is small. So small you could miss it. It’s a fleck of light shining down into your mole hole: Oreos. Oreos are good.
Oreos can pull us out of our mole holes. Oreos can pull us back to our feet. We can be saved by Oreos. By flecks of light. By the memory of love and beauty and good that lifts us up,up,up out of our mole holes into something with a little more room to breathe. Where something new can get in. And new is life. New is Spring. New is resurrection. New is little girls in Easter frocks.
God is in all flecks of light that come into our lives all the time if we are paying attention. If we hold a space for them in our hands. Like fireflies on a June evening, good is all around us. In the majestic favorite muses of poets: the sunrises, the sunsets, the smell of the ocean, your lover’s eyes or a starry night. In the small, everyday miracles of good: a hot shower, a cool glass of clean water, the smell of freshly ground coffee, fireflies on a summer night. In Oreos.
Good is all around bad too. It literally surrounds it. Good is your family and friends carrying you through your grief, good is people rushing into burning buildings, good is searching for cures, good is sending relief after tetonic plates collide or massive wind tunnels pummel whole towns. Good is always standing right beside the charred ruins of bad. It isn’t hard to see once you shine your light saber on it. Once you remember to climb out of your mole hole and look for it because “where there is ruin there is hope for a treasure.” (Rumi)
And maybe that is simply what God is, all the good that surrounds us in the midst of the wreckage of our hearts. And maybe grace is simply having more light by which to see it. And maybe prayer is simply asking for more grace. That against all odds, to see love and goodness emerge, expanding in all directions like Spring. All hope and beauty and glory.