I often imagine my twenties as a sort of a snow-globe: the world violently shakes us around, with some of us quickly sticking somewhere and beginning our adult lives. Others float around for a bit, not quite sure where to fall. Some inevitably land close to where we started, while others are thrown down far from the familiar or desired, geographically, professionally, spiritually, mentally, or physically. I see myself still floating and unsure where and when to touch down. As a result of this uncertainty, I’ve made something of a spiritual practice of remembering life at home, as a child and young adult, with my friends and family, as I contemplate currently living far from that home. It’s a sort of anchor for me. Lying in bed the other night, unable to sleep, I reminisced about home. Given the current season of Lent and the concomitant spiritual concerns that accompanies it, I turned to my experience in church at my suburban parish that, for a time, served as my personal axis mundi.
One of my earliest and most vivid memories of Catholic life was a sort of parade that my parish organized, celebrating the groundbreaking of a new church building about a mile from the small mission church that our community had outgrown. We were blessed with a priest who was a true leader, inspiring others to give of their time and money for the betterment of parish life. Though young, I was transfixed at his preaching and apparent holiness. That procession through the tree-lined streets and farmland, led by a crucifer and priests decked out in vestments, was a moment of unabashed Catholic pride. As a young kid, I couldn’t think of anything cooler than watching the police cars with their lights flashing, closing the road for our jubilant walk.
As often happens, our talented pastor served out his two terms and he was asked to take on bigger challenges at an urban parish elsewhere in the archdiocese. I was getting a bit older at this point, and as an active member of our parish youth group, I welcomed our new pastor and parochial vicar. When I traveled up to Maine with 20 others I didn’t know so well for a weekend of whitewater rafting, the thought of which terrified me, I was comforted by the celebration of the Eucharist surrounded by massive pine trees. I think the priest joining us on the trip sensed my trepidation at the pending rafting and he took time to calm me, assured methat I would be on his raft, and congratulated me when we made it through safely. I think you can even see a smile on my face in one of the souvenir photos taken while we conquered the rapids.
After confirmation, my pastor askedme to teach religious education to fifth graders. I didn’t have any experience teaching children, but I agreed. I’m not sure those kids learned much (though we did “publish” an inspired picture guide to the creation story on very fine construction paper), but I learned that young children do not forget anything. An ambitious and overstretched high school junior trying to gain admission into college by padding my resume with every available extracurricular, I’m afraid I didn’t devote as much time to lesson planning as the class demanded. Those kids were not afraid to call me out for lazy lessons or canceled classes. I don’t think I’ve had a better class on being prepared for life since.
My pastor suspected I might have a call to the priesthood so he encouraged my participation in every area of parish life that seemed at all interesting. I was a lector and Eucharistic minister. I spent a summer working on church maintenance, mowing the fields surrounding the building and cleaning windows in the rectory. Following that summer, I left for a Catholic college to study theology. Looking back now, I think the end of that summer marked the culmination of my wonderfully innocent and fulfilling Catholicism.
Through college and then Divinity School, and especially over the past few years working in the Catholic nonprofit sector, I’ve replaced the church of my youth with something I don’t recognize anymore. In a way, I think I pay too much attention. The church’s flaws display themselves daily in the news I read, on the blogs I frequent, and in the conversations I have with colleagues and friends. As is true with any institution, the closer you are to the center of power the more corrupt it appears.
Catholics worship the church, Protestants worship the bible, so who worships God? This sarcastic quip has stuck with me since I first heard it in graduate school, and I think there is some truth in it for me. I was fortunate to have such an uplifting and positive experience of church as a child. I may have begun to worship the institution just a bit (can you think of many other 14 year olds who purchase large Vatican flags to hang on their bedroom walls?). As I matured a bit, I began to see the church for what it is: a flawed human institution, though one with a noble and divine mission.
A friend and colleague who shares some of my frustration with the Catholic Church implores me and others of our ilk to remember the one or two things that we love about the church, and to cling onto them and to let go of the rest. I don’t think she means to give up the fight, the press for change and reform, but to release the anger and hurt. If “A Flickering Light” was my Good Friday, then I hope the church of my youth will be my Easter Sunday.
Though darkness colors my Catholic experience of late, there are many points of light that, if I focus my attention on them, I think will lead me back to something more closely resembling the church of my youth. The innocence is surely gone forever, but the experience of a loving Gospel community surely awaits me. That search will be my Easter prayer.