For brevity sake, I won’t go into the full backstory here (but if you’re interested, here ya go). If you follow my work, you know I had a stint where I helped open a New Thought church and was really into that spiritual tradition for quite a long time. You might also know that things didn’t really work out with said church.
Okay, you’re all caught up.
So for a month or so, my family and I have been just… hanging out… on Sundays. Which is weird because for the last six months, Sunday has largely been a work day for me.
I’d get up early, load up the red dragon (our trusty Kia Sportage) with plastic bins (it’s a rented space, so it was a church-in-a-box situation) and head downtown where I’d help situate things, prepare my spiel (if I was up that particular week to do the ‘Welcome to church’ thing), set up the livestream on Facebook, shake hands, welcome guests, and generally go into minister-in-training mode. Then I’d stay late, shake more hands, roll up the cords and pack up my equipment, load up the bins, throw them in my garage, and get home around 2 or 3.
My wife and I live about 500 feet from a beautiful Catholic church. Our background is Catholic. We were married in a Catholic church. But we’re coming out of an I’m-mad-at-you-Catholic-church stage. Like many other Catholics, we hit a point (around 2008) where we rebelled. We were kinda like, psssht. Eff that guilt and dogma stuff. That old white guy in the clouds with the beard is a drummed up version of Santa Claus that we don’t believe in. We don’t like the fact that so many priests have done the molestation thing. We’re rational westerners and we’re out.
And we bounced. Goodbye Catholicism. Hello Atheism. Hello rationalism.
The world was right. (For awhile.)
And then we had a kid.
And we realized something was… missing.
That’s when we found contemporary spirituality (actually, I’d been a bit of a spirituality junkie long before that) and a New Thought church. It was so nice to have a spiritual community. And a progressive one! One that wasn’t Jesus-centered. One that touted a guilt-free, dogma-free atmosphere!
I went all-in (like I do). Eventually got involved with New Thought ministry. Moved to Chicago. And recently realized, upon the not-working-out-of-things, ohhhh… There is a strong sense of guilt and dogma and shame (albeit a less direct, more passive-aggressive one) even in this community that touts the absence of those things.
Wow, self — I said to myself — Guilt and dogma are human things. They’re baked into the human condition. It has nothing to do with the ‘church’, per-se. It has to do with the way we’re wired and how our cultural narrative is arranged.
Every day since we’ve lived here these past nine months, we’ve walked by that big, beautiful Catholic church and nostalgia has started to seep in.
Personally, I never had a huge issue with my Catholic upbringing. Mass put me to sleep, but beyond that, it was a pleasant experience. And Jesus — I think he’s woefully misunderstood.
My wife was a little more attached to the church growing up, so her rebellion was a bit more intense.
However, time has smoothed the jagged edges wrought from our deconstruction of Catholicism. (Plus, I’ve really been enjoying the readings of progressive Catholic thinkers like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Dorothy Day, and others who’ve offered hope in this ancient tradition.) Through my Interfaith ministry studies, mystical Catholicism has grown more and more intriguing to me. And, like I said, it’s a mere 500 ft. away.
So, the other Sunday, we went.
It was weird not getting up super early, not loading up the car, not setting up any media, not having the pressure to be ‘on’. But just going in and sitting with my family in the midst of a tradition that’s been going on — in one form or another — for thousands of years in a community of billions of people.
The grandiosity of Catholicism is palpable.
That’s the first thing that struck me as we walked in. The largeness of the building. The architectural beauty (the church was built in 1902) is astounding (as Catholic churches are).
During my deconstruction of Catholicism, I resented this. Why does God need a huge, expensive building? I mean, how many people are they guilting money out of so that they can build and maintain these things?
(You know, the necessary questions. Questions every Catholic likely has to a degree, but might not want to embrace.)
And now, after coming back, I see it differently. I see it through the softer eyes of someone who’s consciously returning to something… special. Sacred, in fact.
It’s like the energy between you and a loved one after the argument.
You said what you needed to say and it’s better now. The air is lighter. You can laugh about it a little. Yes, you’re both a little apprehensive, but in their presence, you just feel… Good.
First off, I had no idea what to do. The moves — I totally forgot them. When to bow, when to kneel, what to say, when to say it. Gone.
I realized that I’m a really horrible Catholic. I’ve always been a horrible Catholic. And it’s fantastic.
Even way back when I used to fall asleep in my mother’s arms in mass due to extreme boredom. To when the nuns yelled at me and my friend, Eloy, for playing too rough in Catechism.
And stumbling over myself in there the other day, I absolutely loved it. My imperfection blends right in there. There were so many of us under that roof that it didn’t matter one bit.
What a great metaphor for life.
As I knelt there on that pew and gazed up at the stained glass, I felt something essential to the human experience…
I felt small.
And it was incredible.
In that Catholic church, as a mother holding her year-old-ish baby on her hip while reading the missal made way for a robe-laden priest spoke a warm message so soft that it was almost inaudible, I felt like a small part of a larger… body.
Looking around, I saw what looked like a real community. Babies, kids, siblings, young parents, older folks, ragged, dapper, male, female,
all of us together in one
The Body of Christ.
They talked about their efforts in the community. Feeding the hungry. Providing shelter. And a few other muffled things that I didn’t hear (I tell ya, they have to work on their sound system there, the words just fly up into the air and dissipate before hitting the ears). I felt community there. Real community.
I was small again. My ego was disarmed.
It’s what we love so much about standing at the foot of a mountain range, giant tree, skyscraper, or while looking into the eyes of a newborn…
It takes the weight off of our shoulders. The world doesn’t revolve around the demands and insecurities of our individual egos. As terrifying as that can be, at a deeper level, it’s incredibly healing.
In our western culture, it’s all about the individual. Modern spirituality has fallen into this groove as well. The New Thought church I was involved in was like going to a mini Tony Robbins event every Sunday. Much of it is about individual manifestation, the law of attraction, prosperity gospel, and materialism.
(Yes, I’m fully aware that I’m going through a bit of a rebellious stage towards modern spirituality, and I’m totally good with that.)
But right now, I like feeling small. It’s so nourishing.
And I’m loving being a really horrible Catholic.
Edited: Since writing this post, I’ve actually converted to Lutheranism:) Read more here.