Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunday Thoughts: Soul Cathedral

The church I attend is plain, simple, and full of Grace. Wide windows connect the worshiper to the outdoors as the songs and prayers are lifted up. The unaffected, plain nature of the pastor and congregation give a sense of community.

Even in this beautiful setting, though, it is hard not to see the shadow of the ornate Catholic cathedral peeking out from behind the simple furnishings of the Lutheran sanctuary. You can see that the two are related. In fact, the more time goes on, the more I begin to see, paradoxically, the genius of Catholicism. It really does draw the whole self in – body, mind and spirit. How it maintains its membership once the whole self has been drawn in is a much more problematic question, but the initial wooing of the soul is really quite delightful.

So I am left with fragments of memory – incense, creaking pews, the shining golden monstrance, Ubi Caritas and holy water and the high cathedral altar. If there is one emotion-feeling that I miss, it is the quiet hush of prayer, congregants kneeling down, light filtering in through a stained glass window. The smell of old wood and furniture polish and candles, maybe a trace of leftover incense from the day before, hanging in the air. The hushed, whispering tones of those who dare to speak because they must. The sense that this place and time are sacred. What does a post-Catholic do with these bittersweet impressions, somehow too large and unwieldy for the scrapbook?

An answer begins to show itself as I study the plainness and lack of ornamentation around me every Sunday morning. When the twisting, turning mental circles of Catholicism slow down (and stop!), and I can accept grace on the basis of faith instead of perfect performance of ritual, the question changes from “Will I be able to end up in heaven?” to “What should I do now on earth?” Without the ritual requirements there is time -- and energy -- to live a holy life now.

If the Catholic cathedral succeeds in drawing the attention of the soul upwards and outwards, the Lutheran sanctuary I see every week succeeds in drawing it back down to the people, asking questions about how to show the inclusive nature of God’s love to everyone, not just those who share the same creed and beliefs. I take comfort in the workaday nature of the new faith I am learning, because of this focus on the practical, tangible elements of a spiritual life. Less time is spent defining its legalistic boundaries and differentiating itself from other denominations, so more time is available for a vibrant, joyful Christian life.

The real genius of this smaller, simpler way begins to poke through like a chick pecking its way out of an egg: this faith can sustain me without the grandeur of cathedrals, without the “smells and bells,” because I have the spiritual energy to build a cathedral with my own life, and prepare a tabernacle in my own heart. George Fox, who is credited with being the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), famously said, “Let your life speak.” This idea has just as much relevance in 2012 as it did in the 1600s. Without a Cathedral to proclaim the grandeur of God, it is left to me to do so with my own life and service.

Now, when I think of the old Catholic furniture that I miss, I can compare it to a visit to a "living history" site like Colonial Williamsburg. I am not ashamed of having the old places in my history, and I enjoy thinking about them, reading about them, strolling through the streets and shops and turning the old objects over in my hands, watching the light reflect off their polished surfaces. But at the end of the day, I do not live there anymore. Instead, the great Cathedral begins to take shape within me.