My spiritual experiences run in two categories: the ‘warm fuzzies’ and the ‘lightning bolts.’
The warm fuzzies are much more common and perhaps even expected. For me, the most common warm fuzzy comes when I help lead the singing at my local Catholic church service (mass). Singing is my avocation, not my vocation; I practice some, but I do not strive for perfection (no time for that!). Yet when I lead the songs from up front rather than singing from the pew, something different happens. That warm fuzzy feeling transforms me, as if in a tiny way, God is singing through me. Since I sing at church once a month, that’s about how often I get that feeling.
On the other hand, the lightning bolts are quite rare. My biggest lightning bolt was more than ten years ago, as I looked for a church to attend while in medical school in St. Louis.
Searching for a church was new to me. Growing up in small-town East Texas, I belonged, with my family, to the one and only Catholic church in my hometown. In college, I didn’t have a car, so I the Catholic student center across the street from campus was the logical choice. As a graduate student in Boulder, I once again joined the university-affiliated church. But when I moved to St. Louis, a very Catholic city by heritage, the numerous Catholic churches scattered all over the city and suburbs made finding a church that fit a surprising challenge.
From the outside, Catholic churches may seem fairly similar: we all follow the same readings and structured worship service each week. Even mass in other languages follows essentially the same pattern and words. I have attended mass in Spanish, Latin, and German and could follow along and participate despite not really understanding the scripture readings or sermon. But Catholic churches come in a variety of flavors: churches with organs and multi-part choirs, churches with guitars and drums, socially/politically liberal versus conservative priests and congregations, big churches with empty pews, small churches with packed pews, and so forth. With Catholic churches, you can’t really figure out what sort of church you are walking into from the outside. The Sunday bulletin, typically handed out at every service, gives some sense of the parish community and activities. Ultimately, though, you must park yourself in a pew and experience a mass or two.
By default, I started at the university-affiliated Catholic student center. It was a lovely place, but not very close to my apartment (the medical school is separate from the main campus). And somehow I had outgrown it; now on my second round of post-graduate education, I felt old among the mostly undergraduate attendees. My next default was the closest church: the St. Louis cathedral, within steps of my apartment, and a fabulously beautiful place, decorated with mosaics completed over a 76-year span. I wandered in and out for over a year, never really met anyone, and found it big, empty, and cold. I tried one or two other churches, but just kept going to the Cathedral because it was close. I felt lost.
In my second year of medical school, as I drove to volunteer in a free clinic in a transitional neighborhood (i.e., close to the ‘hood), I made a wrong turn. My path took me past a tiny Catholic church, St. Cronan’s Parish. I had not been there before, and it was not very far from my apartment –why not try it?
The Sunday I decided to attend was just after my medical school class suffered a tragic loss–three classmates were killed in a car accident. One was my anatomy lab partner the previous year. We were all collectively devastated. We went back to classes after a couple of days, but I had not yet managed to mourn.
That Sunday, I showed up at St. Cronan’s for the 10AM service at 9:50AM. Nearly empty. I got a little nervous. A little old lady saw that I was new and welcomed me. People started pouring in right at 10AM, and the place was packed, every pew filled, by 10:10 (when the service actually started). The mass was wonderful. Everyone, I mean everyone, was singing!
About halfway through the mass, Catholic churches typically offer ‘The Prayers of the Faithful,’ thanking God for blessings and asking for what we need. Pre-written prayers offered by a lector may be followed by an opportunity for open prayer. This church had lots of folks piping up. I spoke up and asked for prayers for the families and friends of my classmates who had been killed. Then, I started crying. And I cried off and on for the rest of the service.
Not only did everyone pray for all of us, but people I did not know at all hugged me and held me and got me through. I was surrounded by amazing love. When I showed up the next week (closer to 10:10 a.m. this time), the little old lady said, “You came back.” I had found my spiritual home.
I later discovered, as I returned week after week, that this church attracted people from all over the St. Louis area—straight folks, gay folks, people looking for community, people who had been hurt by the Church in one way or another and were searching for healing. This church even had a ‘Community of Preachers’ that included women–some weeks, the priest would stand up and say a few words (to stay within the rules), and then one of this community would do the actual preaching. While this church seemed often on the edge of being in trouble, they still exist today.
How did this church become the kind of community it is, and how do people find it? I never asked. I suspect that some time ago, one priest assigned to this church was sympathetic to a spectrum of ideals, forming a center around which a community gathered and became self-sustaining. Now, people probably hear about it by word of mouth, and perhaps their web site brings some people in. It describes their mission as ‘to create an atmosphere in which people of all ages and persuasions are called to worship and to build the living Church’ (www.stcronan.org). Perhaps others are lost as I was, and become found.
I miss this place, and I think often of the ‘lightning bolt’ experience that lead me to join that community.