When the world looms too close and I forget that I am in it but not of it, there is a quiet place in my memory bank that I run to as fast as I can.
The youngest of six daughters, I was raised Roman Catholic. Twelve years in Catholic schools. Countless masses, ceremonies, candle lightings, rosaries, novenas, stations of the cross. Umpteen whispered conversations with boys on whom I had crushes whilst we were supposed to be reflecting on our sins.
You’d think I would be churched out by now.
While I no longer attend Masses regularly, and my views have diverged from the church’s for many years, I find myself wanting the solace of ritual. Of sunlight streaming through a stained glass window. The smell of incense. Votive candles standing sentinel for the hopes and prayers of my fellow humans.
I have a difficult time just letting myself be. I am hard on myself. Always trying to figure out three steps ahead. When something unpleasant takes me by surprise, I have a tendency to blame myself. Why did I not plan for this eventuality or that wrong turn? I was brought up to own my piece of a problem. Unfortunately, I did not seem to learn that sometimes problems just happen.
And that excellence should not be the ticket for love, self or otherwise. That love is not earned. Love is given simply because we are who we are. Foibles, failings, triumphs, bright shining moments—it is all OK. Better than OK. Meant to be. A divine soup, of sorts.
On days I feel overwhelmed, I want the quiet sanctity of a church, a chapel, some sacred space. In a church, just being is really the only alternative. There is no striving. No one cares if I aced my recent work presentation or bombed it.
When alone (and yes, I try to go when no Mass is scheduled), a feeling envelops me as I sit or kneel. I can only describe it as God. And while I feel this presence during my days, it is not the same. In a sacred space, God surrounds me. I am taken into divine arms and held. I find, in those arms, I can just be. In a way I cannot always achieve myself (Ah, there is the rub. Even when talking about “just being”, I speak in terms of achievement. You see how many of us are programmed?).
I am not Kristine the executive. Not a tired single mother. Not a lonely daughter who misses her parents. Not the sister who can be prickly and does not call enough. Not the friend who needs to make more time for those I love. Not the woman wondering how she will ever fit a man into this schedule again.
Those roles fall to the floor like so much chaff.
I am the soul I came to this place as on my very first day here, but now world weary and trying to figure it all out. I am usually told—silently, as I sit—not to figure anything out. Just to feel the love. And, amazingly, I do.
I’ve thought about how to carve a similar experience for myself in my home but there is something to be said for a structure, large or small, where hundreds or thousands have come to pray fervently, to cry, to celebrate, to mourn, to admit their failings. Our collective humanity seems to bless the place as much as the Divine presence we call there.
I think back to my first church, St. Angela’s. The church where I received all my first sacraments as a child. I read from that pulpit more times than you can count. Processed up that aisle in my itchy plaid wool skirt and knee socks through a haze of incense smoke on high holy days. I gave my mother’s memoriam from that pulpit. My father’s also. I watched sisters get married, babies get baptized and caskets carried out by my nephews with a solemnity I never thought to see from them.
I think back to the chapel in my high school. The one where I wrung my hands after realizing I had wronged someone who had been good to me. The one where I attended countless mini-retreats. The one I entered as a skinny bean pole of a child and left a much more accomplished young woman.
I remember St. Clement’s. The church I would head to just to help myself stay grounded in a big city where the label on my dress tended to mean more than the words coming out of my mouth, in some circles. I believe I also attended for a while, admittedly, because of the gorgeous young priest. The diocese was smart on that one; I think their female attendance doubled in the year of his tenure there.
When people ask me why I keep my children in religious education, I tell them it is for this grounding. I want them to know divine spaces. I want a framework for them with which they can try to make sense of the world, even if it means they reject that framework and choose another one.
Sacred spaces are not created overnight.
Neither are people who have learned to just be still and be loved.
At least, not in this world.
Even for the most “modern” among us, stillness is a necessity.
I run to it whenever I can.