The search for spiritual home

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

Should Obama Attend Church?

South façade of the White House, the executive...
One place to pray. Image via Wikipedia

Tonight NBC Nightly News aired a clip from Matt Lauer’s interview with President Obama, in which he asked the President why he has not chosen a church to attend. He was told that so doing would create too much of a distraction for fellow parishioners, and that the President, instead, receives a daily “devotional” email from a group of pastors nationwide.

Presidents Clinton and Carter managed to choose and attend church while serving in the White House. Given that this Sunday is Easter, one of the most important, if not the most important, days of Christians’ liturgical calendar, this choice, or lack of one, strikes me as odd and evasive.

I began attending a local Episcopal church in 1998 after a personal crisis, being victimized by a criminal, made me deeply question my values, my decisions and my lack of a larger community. I don’t attend every week, but when I do it’s with immense gratitude for a place I’m thoughtfully reminded of deeper and wider values than my own petty personal concerns. I also appreciate being part of a larger community that has warmly welcomed me and my partner, a Buddhist, and helped nurture our spiritual growth. Many of our ministers and assistants, much to my surprise — not having been a “cradle Christian”, attending church faithfully since birth — have become beloved friends.

If Obama truly wants to participate in Christian life, being visible in this specific, chosen, sacred place is part of that commitment, as he knows. He and his wife and two daughters may arrive by limousine surrounded and protected by the Secret Service, but the unyielding hardness of a wooden pew, the Bible and the sermons based on it he would hear there each week, usefully remind us all that’s not how he — or any of us, regardless of our temporal wealth and power — will be leaving.

A good church (or mosque, temple, synagogue or any public place of worship) — and there are many that are not nourishing — is a plot of deep, rich, fertile soil, a place to put down some roots and see what blossoms. When you publicly and collectively meditate and pray for others, it reminds us of our larger humanity and our connection to those, as our service says every week, who are ill, dying, sick or in need.

From mensnewsdaily:

As you know, attending Sunday morning worship enables you to worship God, which for Christians is both a responsibility and privilege. These services help supply you with moral inspiration and spiritual strength, which are vital to your work as president. Attending habitually will also enable your wife and children to receive biblical instruction and Christian nurture. You have repeatedly claimed that your faith is important to you and helps guide your political priorities, policies, and work. You have frequently used religious rhetoric and scriptural principles and passages to support legislation you are promoting. You have also sought to enlist clergy, committed lay Christians, and religious organizations to work to achieve causes in which you believe strongly. Moreover, attending church faithfully would testify to your professed values and help you gain greater credibility with religious Americans.

Equally important, your regular attendance would set a good example for our nation.

Wrote Time:

Church, in fact, has been a surprisingly tough issue for the Obamas. They resigned their membership with Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 2008 after Obama renounced the church’s controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. And while the First Family intended to find a local church to attend when they moved to Washington, concerns about crowds and displacing regular worshippers has prevented them from finding a new religious home during their first year here.

The Obamas have attended Sunday services in Washington three times this year — once at the predominantly African-American 19th Street Baptist Church, and twice at St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. Asked at Tuesday’s White House briefing whether the First Family is still searching for a local church to join, press secretary Robert Gibbs responded: “The President has attended fairly regularly up at Camp David a church that he’s comfortable in and has enjoyed attending.”

What do you think? Does it matter to you if he chooses a church and becomes a part of that larger community?

Or is he avoiding controversy and further political divisiveness by keeping his prayer life confined to the White House?

After 36 Years, A Woman In Our Pulpit

St James's Anglican Church
Image by jofo2005 via Flickr

Today was a historic day for St. Barnabas, a 156-year-old Episcopal church whose last rector, Charlie Colwell, held that post for 36 years. As of today, after more than a year of searching for a new rector, we’re led by Nora Smith, a former retail executive who changed careers. I shared a pew with her husband, who himself changed careers a few years ago, also from retail to public service.

She did great. Her hair pulled back in a black scrunchie, black patent pumps gleaming beneath her robes, she preached a terrific sermon, funny and personal and moving and inspiring. It was such a moving sight to have a woman at the altar, in the pulpit, our new spiritual leader. Women only gained entrance to Episcopal church ministry in the mid 1970s and, partly thanks to access to well-paid corporate jobs, some of them are only now — at mid-life — becoming clergy, finally financially able to heed a call they’d heard decades earlier. I wrote about this shift a while ago for a Canadian magazine.

Women clergy are changing their churches; here are some trends among second-career clergy.

Yet women who put on a clerical collar can still hit what’s called the stained glass ceiling in their new career. Their spouses, too, must move into an unusual new role, the minister’s husband.

I came to St. B’s about a decade ago and it was the female assistant minister at the time (they usually stay two to three years), Susan Richmond, a petite blond, whose energy, compassion, wisdom and style brought me back. I attend my church for many reasons, and I miss Charlie, who’s still a good friend and whose autobiography I helped edit. But listening to and watching a woman of my generation step into those robes and into the pulpit is an amazing thing.