Monday, July 10, 2006

The Blessed Island

I—a tiny speck of a boat carried on roiling, darkening waves, held up solely by surface tension. Desperate for an island, some kind of rock outcropping unmoved by the sea.

That’s why I never pass a church without a second look.

In a sense, having grown up in a minister’s family, I was bred that way. Everything—our faith life and our social life—revolved around whichever church my dad was pastoring that year. (We moved frequently; dad was restless.)

I’ve been doing this since I can remember. For me, churches represent the same thing they did to an accused criminal under pursuit in the middle ages—a refuge. I’ve always felt more comfortable in a church than anywhere else except for my own home. Church is my second home, it seems. These are some of my favorites:

San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral seems to float atop Nob Hill, looking down on a city oblivious to its benevolent gaze.

At Mass in the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal’s chapel, I feel like an anchorite in a cell whose outer walls are lashed with wind and rain as people outside ignore the storm and go about their business.

In a nameless, abandoned country church in Jamesport, Missouri, I can almost sense traces of the worshippers that once filled the pews, nodded assent, stifled yawns, worried about crops and rain and the elections and the baby’s cough.

Walking into St. Patrick Cathedral in Manhattan, I feel like I’ve gone to sleep on a train leaving Penn Station and woken up in country heaven.

St. Joseph Melkite Greek Catholic Church stands quiet and alone in the heart of a Dominican neighborhood in Lawrence, Massachusetts, its golden domes reflecting alien light on the bodegas and Latino bakeries. Entering, the incense, icons, and strange language take me into a world of the spirit, where time has no meaning and Jesus is ever beside me and within me.

In Paris, Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre extends its arms to a teeming mass of thieves and moneychangers in the square below while I buy artists’ wares in the parabolic shadow of the cathedral.

Thick stone walls envelope me, shutting out light and the sound of passing cars speeding by a few yards away, in the chapel of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When I enter a church—any church—I leave the noise and confusion of commerce, of obligations, of self-doubt, and step onto a blessed island set in an onrushing sea.


A prince of the church
fell from grace,
and a child was buried
under the holy waters
of a chapel
burdened by long-delayed advent.

In a way,
we make a way
for this to happen—
not the sin but the disappointment;

wise through experience
in the light of day
but feigning innocence
in matters of the cloth,

we maintain our hold
on sacrament-forming habit
and choose to know nothing of
blood in the water.

In our bargain,
none knows
if the delay may be
longer still, or ever,

but that earthbound day,
a prince of the church
fell from grace
and a child
was raised to walk.

Icon, St. Joseph Melkite Church

Christ resides in the cup,
pressed out
by the feet
of we who wander.

Little changes; the church’s
great Doctor, Chrysostom,
spoke of those
who had marred the holy meal
through pride, misapplied love.

His liturgy
still rings strange
in our material ears
all these years later,
as we wait for a second coming,
having scarcely tasted
of the first.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Parts Unknown

And Enoch walked with God, and Enoch was not, for God took him.

This has to be one of the most evocative phrases in all of scripture, obscuring more than it reveals. How was Enoch taken? Where? Most importantly, why? I’ve heard sermons about Enoch’s close relationship with God, in the “just a closer walk with Thee” sense, and that may well be the verse’s emphasis, but the passage doesn’t say that. God’s reasons are unclear.

They are unclear, as well, for the death of my father-in-law three months ago. Just as with Enoch’s translation, it’s not mine to know the reason. There may not be any reason at all, in the end. All we know is that he was with us and now he is not.

That’s certainly one of the most disconcerting parts of a death for the survivors. How does one comprehend that absence? It’s so difficult to understand because it doesn’t fit our patterns.

Saved or not saved? Those terms aren’t useful to me in this process. Ernie was a faithful man: faithful to God, faithful to his family, faithful to his beliefs. That’s good enough for me right now. I believe in heaven, and I know Ernie is in heaven. I have no idea what heaven is, outside of the presence of God. It’s another of those mysteries of scripture.

Of course I want to know. I don't care about the “streets are made of gold” stuff—I just want to know where he is. I miss him. I want to know if he perceives what we’re up to these days, what his grandsons are doing, how much his daughter—my wife—misses him. Does he hear his wife—now a widow at 57—when she talks to him at the graveside? Does he long to talk to her?

To me heaven is knowing the answers. Being with God, and knowing the answers to things we don’t understand. I think that’s the greatest longing of the human heart—as St. Paul wrote, to know even as we are known. Surely that’s the end of our striving, all the prayers, readings, church attendance, talking, thinking.

We believe that God, the creator, knows us intimately; our thoughts, motives, fears, desires, all on display for God to see. Since we’re known in such detail, 1 Corinthians 13:12 means that we will have the answers to our various “whys?” . . . won’t we?

Thank you, St. Augustine, for your words: My soul is restless, Lord, till it rests in Thee.

Rest in peace, Ernie, until we embrace you again.