By Caitlin Kelly
For Jews and Christians, this is an important time of year — Passover begins March 30 and, for Christians, this is Holy Week, culminating April 1 this year with Easter.
Jose and I were back in church this week for Palm Sunday, our first visit since Christmas Eve. It was good to see old friends, although painful to realize, in their faces and their stooped postures, the passing years.
One man, a tall, imposing former schoolteacher, now bends almost double, accompanied by his nurse. A white-haired woman sits alone, now widowed. Once-tiny children are now in their 20s, married or engaged or living far away.
There are few places in life, beyond one’s own family, to intimately witness others’ lives firsthand, sharing the joy of baptisms and marriages or the sudden appearance of someone’s name on a prayer list.
No matter how little we may have in common outside the building, we’re community within it.
I rarely address questions here of faith, religion or spirituality.
This amazing image was across the hall from my hotel room in Rovinj, Croatia, an 18th century building that was the town’s former bishops’ residence
Not because it’s not a matter of interest or reflection for me, but out of respect for Broadside’s many readers who are agnostic, atheist and those who may have suffered brutal treatment within a religious tradition.
And some of you once followed a belief system and chose to leave it.
I’m not a “cradle Christian” — i.e. someone born into a deeply religious church-going family. Quite the opposite. My father is avowedly atheist and my mother became a devout Catholic when I was 12.
But I attended an Anglican (Episcopal) boarding school that subjected us to Sunday nights of prayers and slide shows by visiting missionaries, and put me right off religion for years. We sang hymns, some of which (All Things Bright and Beautiful!) I still love deeply.
I chose to be baptized when I was 13, in Toronto.
But my relationship with church has been intermittent.
I first came to St. Barnabas, a lovely small stone church in Irvington, New York, (the Hudson river town just south of ours), in a moment of panic and crisis, late on Christmas Eve of 1996. My mother had flown in from Canada, arriving drunk. The evening didn’t improve from there., I dropped her at a local hotel and, suddenly totally alone for the holidays, had no idea where to go or what to do.
I slipped into one of the dark wooden pews at St. B’s, deeply grateful for its welcome.
I’ve been attending services there, off and on, since then. It’s felt, at times, like a poor fit for me, someone who isn’t — like many of its members — a perky stay-at-home mother or a corporate warrior working on Wall Street or at a major law firm. I’ve made a few friends there, but it’s not a group into which I naturally fit in easily.
In some ways, though, I think that’s important.
One value of religious or spiritual community is its shared yet sometimes invisible yearning for wisdom and tradition, for evidence of faith and hope — not the usual pattern-matching that leads us to spend time only with others who look and sound just like us. (Don’t get me wrong — if a place feels genuinely unwelcoming, fleeing can be a wise choice.)
In American culture, so devoted to the pursuit of temporal and visible wealth and power, I increasingly crave a place of spiritual rest and respite. It’s helpful to be reminded of deeper values.
To sit in those polished pews — where worshipers have been gathering since 1853 — connects me to a larger world and its history.
I also treasure the esthetic experience of our church’s stained glass windows, its lovely organ, (donated in 2000 by one member), its mosaic altar, its physical intimacy.
I enjoy the familiar liturgy. One of its traditions is the Peace — greeting one another with a hug or handshake — offering our wishes for the peace of the Lord to each other. It’s one of my favorite moments.
My husband Jose, is a devout Buddhist, in the Dzogchen tradition, but accompanies me to services. I’ve met his lama, Surya Das, and spent a week with them in a silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 before Jose and I married.
He’s also a PK, a preacher’s kid, whose father was a Southern Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so he is blessedly at home in many spaces of quiet contemplation.
Do you have a spiritual home?
28 thoughts on “The search for spiritual home”
Caitlin, thank you for another thoughtful piece. I am an atheist. I think a major reason, now that you bring it up, that I feel so comfortable reading and commenting on your blog is that you, for the most part, are at least outwardly neutral on matters of faith. To my knowledge you had not mentioned it before, but it makes sense that you do not want to make people feel uncomfortable because there’s no telling what kind of experiences your readers may have had with religion in the past. I appreciate your sensitivity on this. I also enjoyed reading your thoughts about what religious services have to offer that go beyond religion. For lack of a better word, I’ll call it a sense of community. Seeing the passage of time – the middle-aged woman becoming an elderly widow, the small children growning up, I found this very moving.
I thought of you specifically (and another reader I know personally) when I wrote this.
So many people have been deeply damaged by aggressive forms of religion/religious training, such as sexual abuse by trusted members of the clergy. So I would never ever assume that my (largely) pleasant experiences are typical for others. Clearly not!
As someone with no children, nieces or nephews, I have few obvious markers of time passing (odd but true), but I really see it in my other communities. Within a welcoming space, you can also see how others face and cope with life. As someone who no longer has a relationship with my mother, it’s also been healing to speak with other mothers there who’ve faced this.
Thanks for another timely and, as always, thought provoking piece of work. Thanks also to Jann ( is that “Yann” or “Jan”? I need to know in case we meet by accident in a bar somewhere in the world.) for an excellent comment, it was a real pleasure to read it.
I have a spiritual home. It stands deep in my memory, even though I have long since turned my back on its teachings. It was known as the Park Hall, I guess because it was located on Park street in Dunoon,Argyllshire, Scotland. Architecturally, it was singularly unattractive, bearing more of a resemblance to a Quonset hut than the house of God, but God has a Sterling reputation for not being snobbish when it comes to accommodations.
The church was run by the parents of my best friend at the time. Mr. Blackwood was tall and super skinny. He had a deep,solemn voice with the customary Highland accent, but he always spoke very clearly and at a measured pace that allowed Americans to keep up. His mom was short and round and a little bit shrill, but so good-natured and kind it just didn’t matter.
Back to church, now. There were three services every Sunday: Adults in the morning, kids after lunch and everyone after supper. I was a wee bit young for the adults, which was fine with me. Kids’ Sunday school was maybe an hour and a half of singing songs and Bible trivia for CANDY! Needless to say I was killing that.
Still, candy or no candy, the singing was the best part. We didn’t sing hymns, we referred to them as “Choruses” and they were great. They all came from the Bible. There was one about Daniel in the lion’s den and even one about Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, sort of a Nebuchadnezzar double-header. My friend’s big sister would stand up next to the pulpit and hold up cue cards while Mrs Blackwood played this ancient pump organ. This is the part that gets real. Mrs. Blackwood would sit there, pumping those pedals and playing and absolutely singing her heart out like she was Kiri te Kanawa, transported in an ecstasy of worship and praise, singing these goofy little children’s songs backed up by a couple dozen kids, most of whom are off key or can’t keep up with the lyrics. If there’s a God and he can’t dig that, he’s unworthy of such a fine lady.’
So there’s my spiritual home. Humble as it was, it’s the only house of worship where I have ever felt like I was in the presence of god.
This made me cry.
Can’t thank you enough for sharing this amazing memory in such detail.
I often felt this sitting on a half-sawn birchbark log, i.e. our outdoor seating in our summer camp’s chapel, sitting beneath trees in the sunshine. The cross was made of birch as well. You can find God anywhere, if you want to.
1 Corinthians 1:27 “…God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise…”
You know this made me cry too, returning to this place and also to my place in it, where my innocence wasn’t quite broken yet. I really can’t thank you enough for inviting me to have another piece of that candy. I can’t wait to read the next one.
I am so cautious sometimes about what I’ll tiptoe into, content-wise.
Sorry to read about the innocence. Such is so many’s lot in this life.
It’s OK. I think losing your innocence is part of what you get when you open your eyes, so you just try to see something to even it all up.
I am also an atheist, but I also believe Jann has said it best. I appreciate your sensitivity as well. 🙂
this is such a lovely explanation of ‘church.’ noticing the passing of time within a community, i’ve always thought it should be about community. as for myself, i’ve always struggled with organized religion, i decided not to be catholic anymore when i was 7, and waiting to go in for ‘confession.’ i do appreciate the beauty of the buildings and the old rituals, though. after that, i really did not embrace any religion, the closest i can come is buddhism, and i try to live my life by the principles they espouse, such as compassion, kindness, and being in the moment. i’ve visited the buddhist temples here, and on one such experience, met a former catholic nun, now leading a temple, and shared tea and talk with the monks after our mediation. it was a lovely experience.
There’s so much to unpack when it comes to organized religion, religious authority (as someone who loathes most forms of authority, a real issue for me!) and terrible behavior in the name of God by so many for so many millennia…
And yet. And yet.
I think it’s deeply human to want to connect quietly and thoughtfully with others, to have a safe space to talk about shared moral values — more than ever now!
I love Jose’s Buddhist practice and our 7 day retreat was a great way for me to experience it firsthand; his bookshelves are laden with books on it. His lama, Surya Das, is a hoot — funny, warm, down to earth, a personal friend. That alone is a very odd thing, to know and like a spiritual leader. His candor about the burden of adherents’ (sometimes absurd) expectations was something I won’t forget.
I admit, I often feel Buddhists LIVE their faith every day while so many Christians (sadly) talk a great game, then behave politically, personally and professionally in ways that are appalling. That causes me some serious cognitive dissonance.
I enjoyed this writing and the different views on religion. I do have a church home now, the first I’ve been comfortable in for years. I am a cradle Christian, baptized into the Catholic Church, where I received the sacraments of penance, Communion and Confirmation. As soon as I moved from my parents house I stopped going to church. Immediately. I had too many disagreements with the Catholic Church that I couldn’t accept on faith. Then I met my husband and we wanted to get married in a church. We started going to the Episcopal Church that his parents attended sporadically and that’s where I felt comfortable. We called it Catholic Light…all the religion and a third less guilt. We moved to Long Island and attended an Episcopal Church there which was very stuffy…when our infant daughter fussed during the service, we were escorted to the nursery to leave her there. Ummm, no! We didn’t know anyone and were not comfortable with that! Church #2 on Long Island was where we really found a home…another child cried during the sermon and the priest said, “Don’t worry, I can preach louder than he can cry!” We went on to be very involved in the church, youth group, Sunday School, etc. there. Now we’re back in NJ and had a similar situation. Loved our first church and rector, I even worked there a few years. He retired and the new priest courted the “big donators” and couldn’t be bothered with the rest of us, even when I became ill. We stopped attending and never heard from anyone at the church. I emailed the rector and never got a response. My daughter was getting married and found a new church and asked us to attend there. It is now our home. It’s amazing how the community makes the church. This rector is retiring, I’m praying that the new one will be as nurturing and welcoming as the current rector is!
Thanks for sharing this!
This is all so familiar.
I really like the 3-legged stool of Episcopal/Anglican tradition — faith, tradition, reason. Without the third, I would not feel welcome. I also cherish having female priests.
It is really challenging when your church, parish and/or priest, is unwelcoming. We were close to our previous long-time minister, a lobsterman’s son from Maine, until his retirement. His replacement was a total disaster — and she quit after seven years. She had been a retail corporate bigwig (!?) and ran the church like a business. She has very poor social skills — and when I had hip replacement (3 days in hospital) never called, emailed or, (a 10 minute drive from us) even came to visit me as I healed. That did it for me. I stopped attending. Pastoral care matters a great deal to me, not just a shiny organ or fresh flowers on the altar.
Now the church is searching (again) for a new rector. I sure hope they do better this time; our interim, a woman, is fantastic. It makes such a difference.
Spiritual home for me is a complicated question. Like many millennials, I don’t always feel it necessary to be in a physical space to connect with people or a higher power spiritually. God’s everywhere, so why limit where I connect with Him?
I will go to a synagogue though, if I feel it’s important for me to go (and in any case I prefer to sleep in on Saturdays). I was at Purim services recently, and I did attend High Holiday services this past year, but that’s it.
I know you come from a religious family — your Mom (?) is a rabbi, no? Has that affected your views?
Both my parents are rabbis, and it probably did affect my views. However, I didn’t really connect with my faith until I was in my teens, despite years of being exposed to it everywhere I went. In the end though, it was my choice, and I’m happy with it.
I suspect over-exposure could have that effect. Jose has 2 older sisters and none of the 3 are Baptists, like their father was a minister in…(sorry, messy sentence)
I think a lot of preacher parents forget to make the religion mean more than just a chore and getting up early on the weekends. Those preacher kids I know who stuck to their parents’ beliefs or even followed in their parents’ footsteps did it because they got something out of it other than mainly annoyance.
You know it well. Jose has memories (not happy ones) of having to clean the church and play piano for services, as well as welcoming visiting clergy.
Ooh! Yeah, no wonder. That would make me leave too.
Several of his relatives are fundamentalist Christians so we have almost no relationship with them at all (they also live far away in Texas,) It’s a large gulf to cross.
Oh, I wish I did have one. I’ve gone “church shopping,” as a friend calls it, a few times. Years ago. I’ve not yet found the community for me. But, perhaps I will. Love that you have, even though it may not fit cranny to cranny.
Sorry to be so late replying!
I actually didn’t go church shopping, really…it’s time consuming, for sure. We attended one service in a nearby town and people were friendly…it just wasn’t a great fit either.
I haven’t chosen to subscribe to a particular religion in adulthood but I am fond and respectful of the tranquillity and comfort that places of worship offer. In fact, on the rare occasions I find myself in a church now, the rituals that are second nature to the regulars (mumbling the same words.. sitting and standing at the same time) seem rather uncanny to me – at once familiar and very far away. But I enjoy the sense of quiet awe and the atmosphere of reverence.. a feeling I have sometimes experienced in the surroundings of a beautiful, silent library too.
It’s an odd feeling if it’s not your religion, certainly — and even a Catholic service is quite different from an Episcopal/Anglican one. But I think time spent sitting in a quiet, beautiful space (yes, to libraries!) is really restorative spiritually.
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