What is it about ritual that is both terrifying and beautiful? Hypnotic and holy? The eerie “Under His Eye” compared with the rhythmic chant of monks in stone churches. Self-flagellation compared to bedtime prayers with a child. There is, it seems to me, a fine line between that which comforts and that which tortures. Especially in religion.
There was a time in my church life when I believed that ritual was equated with spiritual death. “I will spit you out of my mouth” — Revelation’s warning to the lukewarm was frequently quoted in the church I attended as a teen. God instead desired freedom from lukewarm ritual. Freedom was where He dwelt and we could, quite literally, enter his cloud of glory through total freedom. In retrospect our version of freedom (dancing, flag waving, shouting) was nothing new and was not so different from a whirling dervish or Japanese Zen chanting. Essentially, fatiguing the body and mind in order to bring ones self into a place of enlightenment; an altered state of consciences.
But that freedom, ironically, came with a lot of rules and strict guidelines about who was really God’s and who wasn’t. We believed in a sort of hierarchy of faith. Pentecostals (of the Assemblies of God, Four Square, Vinyard, ect, persuasion) were at the top. Lutherans, Baptists or Methodists would certainly go to heaven, but they would not share the upper echelons of heaven that we, who were closest to His heart, would. He loved us best. It was rarely said, but always implied.
At the bottom of this hierarchy, those we were not quite sure whether they would be allowed into heaven, but trusted God to sort it out despite their idol worship: the Catholics. I remember clearly hearing a trusted pastor tell of how he though perhaps a Catholic that he knew might make it into heaven because this friend didn’t wholly buy into the Mary worship thing. I listened intently and then worried desperately for my own Catholic friends.
As a teen I also had a sort of lustful curiosity about Catholicism as others might have about porn or drugs or alcohol. I knew it was wrong, I knew they were not really Christians, but I wanted to see for myself the idolatry, the gaudiness, and the supposed mindless prayers. I was curious about a life of chastity, what the inner sanctum of the Vatican might be like and if 666 was really on the Pope’s hat. This was all pre-Da Vinci Code, but when that book came out (I was twenty-one) I first shunned it like a good Christian, then later guiltily consumed it in giant gasping gulps.
I first set foot inside a Catholic church somewhat by accident and somewhat on purpose in my early adulthood. I was out with church friends at a local Oktoberfest and the doors of the town’s parish were wide open to the public as they had groups of choirs and musicians on rotation during the festivities. A Catholic friend, who happened to be accompanying us, was somewhat horrified as we dipped our fingers into the holy water and clumsily signed the cross in jest.
Looking back, I am pretty ashamed of my attitude. My only defense is my naivete and that I was influenced by very charismatic adults whom I wholly trusted with my theology. I have since changed my views and I must largely thank Catholic writers for my change of heart. Or really for showing me their own loving, open hearts. The works of Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Tolkien and especially Richard Rohr.
I recently got a chance to re-enter a Catholic church and attend a mass when my husband’s sister asked us to be her son’s godparents and stand with him at his first communion. Fresh from reading The Divine Dance by Fr. Rohr, I soaked it all in. Here are a few things that stood out to me:
The Catholic church, at least the one I attended, is very diverse. I saw the elderly, babies and all ages in-between. I saw Slavic, Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants next to those of long ago European and African descent. A mosaic that I know is largely due to wars, colonialism and slavery, but at least there in that time and place, far from the past, was lovely. It felt refreshingly closer to the demographics of the neighborhood in which the parish sits. I have been in churches in diverse neighborhoods that do not look like that: evangelical churches. Partly due to language and tradition differences, but in my opinion mostly due to the racism that’s never been dealt with in its roots. Racism festers just below the surface of most mainstream churches. It is found in how they talk about missions and outreach and how they claim holiness when they refuse to listen to rap music. But in the end, it is usually a cover for racism. Ageism too is rampant. Churches filled with the old are “too dead spiritually”, “too set in their ways” for modern evangelicals and the younger, hipster churches do little to appeal or reach beyond their narrow demographic. There are evangelical churches for those who homeschool, those who promote social justice, those who believe in traditional gender roles, and a few exist for the LGBTQIA. There are evangelical churches for those who are black, those who are white, those who speak Spanish and so the list goes on, but rarely do these groups ever overlap. As a result the evangelical church is incredibly segregated. Obviously, one mass is not enough to know that the Catholics are doing this right, I’m quite sure they have their flaws when it comes to congregating, but at first glance I feel confident that they are at least doing it better.
I also realized, as I sat in that wooden pew with the built in kneeling board, that ritual can be assuring and beautiful. There is comfort in knowing what is expected and what to expect. Watching people go through the motions of mass you could see them at peace. Like meditation, it took them out of the troubles of life and put them into a place where everything flowed in an ordered rhythm. As an outsider I didn’t know all the words to all the prayers or the calls and responses, but in that moment of holiness it did not seem to matter much. I could simply listen and rest. I could simply belong, while not fully understanding. I could enjoy without feeling like much was expected. In the evangelical churches there is often a lot of pressure placed on the outsider. Pressure to join, pressure to confess sin, pressure to say a sinners prayer and to be another notch on the belt of the person who invited you; another jewel in their heavenly crown. I could not number the times I have attended an evangelical church and someone tried to convert me without even knowing me. At mass it felt good to taste, enjoy and leave without feeling guilty.
In a country where ritual is so divorced from our everyday and rites of passage hardly exist, I found it interesting to watch the ceremony of the first communion. I have only a hazy idea of what the children do before the big day. I know there are classes, I know there is a decision of faith, that it is a day to dress up (perhaps buy a formal suit or gown), and to name godparents. This entering into a community by way of ceremony and ritual seems so precious in a world where loner young men too often resort to mass shootings. It felt like a tying together of the young to the older, to the bigger picture of humanity and God’s purpose for us. Something that today is desperately needed.
Lastly, although I do not think God requires it and I do not want to do it every Sunday, I did find a little formality to be uplifting. I generally do not dress up much for church, but on this day I not only wore a dress, but heels. I cannot remember the last time I wore heals to church. I was not alone among the parishioners and I do not recall seeing anyone who was not in their Sunday Best. A cliche that as I think about it, really is not such a cliche anymore. It reminded me though that there is a certain holiness to this whole church thing. That there is a certain respect and admiration that we should have when we gather together to worship God. Not that I don’t believe I can achieve these things in jeans and a t-shirt or that I have a problem with hats or sweats, but maybe just a little more thought into how we present ourselves on Sunday morning isn’t such a bad thing either. A little preparation of the outside as we prepare the inside to enter fellowship.
To wrap, I appreciated my time at mass and while I will likely not return any time soon, I have a better understanding. The American church is a mess. It is fractured and divided. This should not be. Evangelicals could learn a great deal from their Catholic brothers and sisters, but of course they must first recognize them as kin. My petition is this: let us bridge the gaps, get to know each other and enter one another’s places of worship with open hearts and minds ready to understand. Let us be free from judgment and free to enjoy difference. Maybe then we can begin to be a whole and holy bride.