Around the time I turned thirty-eight, I got a phone call from my dear friend Susan, who made the mistake of asking how things were going.
I burst into tears.
Things were going badly, thank you. My son Alex, who was three years old, needed serious surgery, and we needed to spend a few months at home with him. My husband was still recovering from the removal of a life-threatening six pound tumor in his abdomen; three months after he left the hospital, I had contracted pneumonia, which sapped me of all strength. We couldn’t afford to take any more time off from work, we were drowning in bills, and our house was deteriorating faster than we could fix it. Our eight year old daughter,Amanda, was complaining that we spent very little time with her, and provided her with precious little guidance. I did not know where to turn.
“Come to Church with me,” Susan said.
“Church? That’s the last thing I need, Susan.”
I considered myself a Christian and a believer, but I had stopped going to Church at the age of seventeen. I disagreed with the Pope’s position on birth control, I thought “infallibility” was a crock of caca, and I considered our parish priest a hypocritical bully, more focused on building his coffers than on saving souls.
“Be there at a quarter to ten tomorrow, and bring the kids. Holy Comforter Episcopal Church on George Street.”
“But I’m Catholic.”
“I’ll see you there.”
And with that she hung up.
I went into the next room, and said to Jeff, “The kids and I are going to Church with Susan tomorrow.”
“I don’t have to go, do I?” Jeff really enjoyed his Sunday morning Jewish men’s bowling league.
“No, of course not. And I’m only going tomorrow to shut her up.”
As we got out of the car the next morning, Susan and her kids rushed over to us.
“Good! You’re here! Let’s take the kids to Sunday School.”
“Sunday School?” I asked. “Aren’t they going to stay with us?”
“Oh, they’ll come in later,” she said. She led my kids to her daughters’ classrooms, introduced them to their teachers and got them settled in. Then she took me to the Church itself.
It was tiny. I was used to the local Roman Catholic Mass Factory, which seated thousands. Even our chapel in high school could have seated five hundred comfortably. I didn’t think this Church could hold two hundred people. It didn’t seem real.
“Why is it so small?” I asked Susan.
“Most of our Churches are,” she answered. “It promotes a closer sense of community.”
Well, that was a concept that was totally foreign to me. I didn’t think of Church as a place to make friends. At the Church my family had attended, you piled in, said your prayers, and piled out. You didn’t socialize with the people around you; any kind of human contact was awkward.
I picked a pew towards the back of the Church and started to sit down.
“Oh, you can’t sit there,” Susan admonished. “That’s where the So-and-so family sits.”
“You have assigned seating?” I asked, incredulously.
“No, but we all know where everyone likes to sit. Come on. Let’s go to our pew.” I saw her husband sitting on a bench uncomfortably close to the front, but I followed obediently. It was only for this one time.
The next thing I knew, everyone stood up. A mighty organ began to play a hymn that could not have been written any earlier than 1900.
“Ah!” I exclaimed with pleasure. One of the things I hated most about the contemporary Catholic church was its execrable repertoire of pseudo-folksy songs. They were all accompanied by pre-teens who could play three chords on a guitar, and they had truly cannibalistic lyrics: “Eat His Body, Drink His Blood, and we’ll sing a song of love, Hallelujah.”
As a choir of lovely post-menopausal ladies marched into the Church and made their way to their seats, Susan thrust an open Hymnal in my hands. I glanced at the lyrics. They were sheer poetry.
“Sing,” she commanded.
I did. “This may be enjoyable,” I thought.
“Please be seated.” Raising my eyes from the Hymnal, I looked up and saw that the officiant was dressed in very familiar garments.
“Does he usually dress like that?” I asked Susan.
“Of course! What else would a priest wear at Mass?”
Priest? Mass? Obviously these Episcopalians skewed Catholic! This made me a bit uncomfortable. “Is it heresy to sit here as these people play-act the Eucharist?” I asked myself.
They did everything we used to do. They sat for a reading from the Old Testament, recited a Psalm, and listened to an Epistle. They sang another hymn. They stood up for the Gospel.
“Well,” I said to Susan. “The calisthenics are no different!”
“Shush,” she admonished.
After the Gospel, the priest gave his sermon. Surprise! It was all about kindness and forgiveness. There was no condemnation, no infliction of guilt. There was no suggestion that the priest’s interpretation of the readings was the only one with validity; people were actually invited to think about God’s word, and decide what it meant in their own lives.
After the sermon, the kids marched in, and were seated in the first two pews with their teachers. I would have expected my two to be quite happy in the company of Susan’s kids… and they were… but they’d evidently made one or two new friends. I hoped they’d behave during the rest of the Mass, and they did, thank God. One or two other kids cried. No one rebuked them; their parents weren’t shamed into taking them outside.
Susan whispered to me, “God’s home is their home too.”
“Wow,” I thought. “He’s more lenient in this house than in others I’ve visited!”
I was starting to like it here… and I didn’t like that at all.
I was Catholic. Roman Catholic. I belonged to the Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church… the one true Church. The infallible Church.
Except that I’d stopped believing in infallibility.
And these people were behaving like perfectly good Christians. They seemed like nice people. They prayed beautifully. They liked kids.
My upbringing would have taught me they’d been sent by Satan, in order to confuse and corrupt me.
Except that they spoke the word of God, and seemed to act out of love.
Maybe they weren’t just play-acting.
Maybe this was real.
Then I heard something that knocked my socks off.
“All baptized Christians are invited to join us in taking Communion.”
Was the priest serious???
“I can’t!” I whispered to Susan. “I haven’t been to Confession!”
“Souls in trouble need God’s peace more than those who are happy,” she said.
“I can’t do it!”
I watched as she and her husband went to the altar. I’d never wanted to go anywhere so badly in my whole entire life.
I wanted peace so desperately! Christ’s peace, the peace of being in a community of good people, the peace of being somewhere where my children were accepted, the peace of being among friends, the peace of making beautiful music, the peace of knowing peace.
I don’t remember whether or not I cried physically, but my soul was in torment; completely ripped apart.
I sat there until Mass was over, and then I turned to Susan.
“Thanks for inviting me, Susan. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I’m going home.”
“No, you’re not. It’s time for Coffee Hour.”
“What the heck is that?”
“Honey, we Episcopalians call it the Eighth Sacrament. It’s fellowship. We sit around together and get to know each other. We make friends.”
“I don’t need any new friends,” I answered testily.
“Don’t be rude. You’re here in their house. Now come downstairs and get to know these people.”
If my all-girls’ Catholic high school had taught me anything it was how not to offend my hostess, so I went downstairs with Susan and her family, and met many of her friends. They were curious, but not nosy; friendly, but not cloying. I thought they’d sit there and discuss spiritual manners, but they didn’t… they joked, talked about their kids, made fun of their spouses, complained about their jobs, and ate many, many donuts, all washed down with coffee strong enough to put hair on your chest.
I had a good time with them… and when I finally saw that it was time to go home, more than one of them said to me, “See you next week!”
In the car, I asked the kids, “How did you like it?”
“It was great, Mommy!” my daughter said. “Will you help me with my Sunday School homework?”
“Sunday School homework. I have to learn the Ten Commandments before I come back next week.”
Well, she was eight years old, and the Ten Commandments were as integral to her father’s faith as to mine.
“Sure, I can help you learn them.”
“I want to color some Prophets!”
The little one had enjoyed himself as well.
Next Sunday was another whole week away. I expected them to forget all about Church by the time it rolled around.
But I didn’t.
I remembered how much I loved the music…how pleasantly surprised I’d been to hear Old Testament readings. I remembered the Gospel and the sermon, and marveled that I’d been invited to think about them independently.
I remembered how dearly I would have loved to receive Communion… even if just to see if it felt like the real Body and Blood of Christ I had consumed in the Catholic church.
I remembered Susan’s words, and I felt their truth. I’d never needed God’s peace more desperately… and maybe I would be able to find it by going up to the table in that little Episcopal Church.