Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Church of my Childhood

It was a small church, whose memory has become a part of me. 

It was one of those intimate churches with Gothic arches in the windows and maybe up above - but I just recall a feeling of peace.  And that feeling is not connected with any ritual or public prayer.

It was a time when churches could be left open.  When children were encouraged by the nuns "to make a visit" - even to cross themselves when walking in front of the church.  But especially to stop in, on their own, and visit God.  I have no idea if other children took that advice.  And thankfully no one ever wanted a record of such visits, like librarians wanted a record of the books we read - a book report.

So it was the church itself and the freedom, the peace, the quiet, the non-demanding atmosphere of being there all alone - with GodIn the presence of this Mystery.  That had a powerful impact upon a child who was all too constrained at home and at school and during enforced stillness and obedience of Mass, Rosaries, Benediction, Stations of the Cross, Confessions (oh, dear God, the things I made up to get through that!), and other stuff we had to do - because we were catholic and if we did it all - perfectly - we wouldn't go to hell like every one else.  (Or so they scared us.)

So here was this place of pregnant stillness and mystery.  And if you went there - all alone - you weren't really alone and not only that, the real God who did forgive if you just said you were sorry was somehow there - in a protective way, in a quiet, holy way which left me free.  Free - as no other place seemed to be - except the woods - also a place of mystery, freedom, peace (where I sometimes said mass on the Old Tree Stump).  Because the church was unlocked,  I could stop in on the way home from school.  Or on my trips back and forth to the library.  Walking, mind you.  Walking a mile with a pile of books is not easy when you're 7 or 8, nor at 9 or 10!  So a rest stop must have been very enticing at times:  The peace there.  The lack of adult scrutiny.  My own "conversation" with God instead of rote prayers.

Entering the church, one's eyes adjusting to the dimness, candles flickering faintly in the distance, there was the familiar holy water font - which should mean fountain, for flowing.  And I did once see one flowing like a fountain - overflowing really, right into a Baptismal pool (the size and shape exactly of a coffin), with steps going down into it.  When I saw that, less than 10 years ago, it hit me like a powerful shock of deep meaning - which gave me to understand the very Mystery of Baptism.  It hit me like a thunderclap!  Instant understanding.  Tears flowed.  So deeply did that understanding flow from.

Now, within the Orthodox Church, I have come to see even more of this Mystery.  Theophany, the Blessing of Water, the plunging of the Cross into the Water.  Three times plunged.  Three times raised high.  By our priest.  In solemn silence.  Exactly as he does when baptizing a baby.  The Baptism of Christ and our Baptism.  The dying and the rising - together.  Yes, my own heart has been deeply plunged and is now immersed in these Mysteries.

So here was I.  Ages 7, 8, 9, 10....  Till we moved.  In these two places where God's abiding Presence was available to me.  I'm not sure I understood, till recently, how the woods functioned that way too.  But I certainly felt it those times I visited God's Presence in church.  Alone.  Tiny child, as I look back - even in the modest church.  An architecture which spoke of mystery.  The holy water on entry.  Tiny candles flickering in the darkness, filtered daylight flowing through stained glass.  The sanctuary behind its communion rail.  Red flickering candle signifying God's Presence.  Side altars for St. Joseph (on the left) and Mary (on the right).

I tended to light my candles in front of St. Joseph - his altar seemed neglected in favor of Mary, so I gave him the attention he seemed to lack from others.  Just as I came to regard the Holy Spirit as God's neglected Person, when it came to people's devotion.  So I adopted the Spirit too, you could say.  Of course it was the other way around!  But I didn't really understand that part yet.

And around the sanctuary, there were words written.  Words that surrounded the round space there.  Words it took me a long time to figure out.  For they were written in this fancy script.  Capital letters, each one so fancy it was hard to parse their import as a "letter" - to be divined.  A message to be worked out over time:  Lord, I love the beauty of your house.  The place where your glory dwells.  Yes! 

Those words entered into me.  I saw them so many times.  I must have memorized them quite by accident - as gradually, the place and its beauty entered into my heart and soul.   I didn't yet understand the glory dwelling within me too.  But that was part of where it started.

At some point I discovered the holy water dispensary, where you could get some for yourself.  I wanted that.  Had nothing to put it in.  Found an old discarded wine bottle or liquor bottle outside somewhere.  I filled it up.  Carried it home.  It must have been quite a sight for passing motorists!  ;)  No recollection left beyond the carrying.  Not sure it ever was saved on my behalf - given how it had arrived, likely smelling of alcohol I'm sure.

Once when I was sick, and listening to the radio...  maybe the time I had chicken pox?  I heard these words, as if addressed to me personally:
Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
Those words entered into me as well.  Somehow I either came to memorize them or they were so powerful they simply stayed with me.  Words of comfort, which I think made so much more of an impact, given that everything else (except for endless prayers of the Rosary) was in Latin!  It was likely a protestant preacher on the radio.  But it felt as if Jesus was speaking directly to me.  As if those words of Jesus were calling to me, drawing me.  And I was prompted to consider my situation.  Here I was in a house, with clothing, attending school, fed, kept warm.  I felt blessed.  I really understood that.  But scared at the same time.  Come to Me...  Take my yoke.  Those words were a comfort but also a summons - one that scared me as a small child:  What would God ask of me one day, I wondered.  Where was this leading?  Would I be up to it?