a wandering year

Nine years ago today, Sue and I headed off on a journey.  It took us a year, but we didn’t tell anyone where we were going, even family members.

OK, it was more like a series of little adventures, many of them local, so no one noticed that we were gone.  I had asked Sue whether she would spend a year visiting different churches each week, telling her that I might try to write a book about the experience.  She initially expressed doubt that enough would happen to make that a reality, but she was supportive and willing to go along for the ride.

We followed the liturgical year of the Roman Catholic Church, but the goal was to sample a variety of Christian worship practices.  (A survey of world religions would have to wait for another time.)  Much of our schedule was not carefully thought out in advance.  Instead it was responsive to wherever we were at the time and whatever whims moved me in deciding which church to attend week to week.

That said, we did mix in a number of visits to churches that we knew, but they were vastly outnumbered by ones with which we had no connection and where we showed up as strangers to anyone we would meet.

We have always liked to visit churches, so our quest was not totally out of character.  (During our recent trip to New York City, we went to St. Francis of Assisi Church, a perfect place to hear the words “blessed are the poor in spirit” on All Saints Day.  When we arrived, a fire truck emerged with sirens blaring from the station across the street.  We didn’t know in advance that the parish had been the home of Father Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain who died from falling debris on 9/11 while caring for others.  The church has a glorious mosaic above the altar — and a mangled mass of steel from the World Trade Center as a memorial midway up one of the outside aisles.)

In some cases, the churches we attended were tiny and in others truly “mega.”  From pulpits in rural and suburban and inner-city buildings, we heard it all, ranging from fire and brimstone to messages of love.  There were liberal interpretations of scripture as well as conservative ones; at times it was hard to reconcile how different the messages were.  Some churches had only white members, while at others most everyone was black or Latino except us.  (We didn’t understand the words of the Mass recited in Spanish, nor those in French while in Quebec a few years later, but we appreciated those experiences nonetheless.)

The journey was meant to be one of exploration and observation.  Each week, Sue and I would compare our impressions after the service; in doing so, it was fascinating to see what each of us had noticed, what moved us, and what bothered us (if anything).  Then, I would make some detailed notes in preparation for writing that book.

Even without those notes, there are flashes of memory that stick with me.  I recall an older woman with a cane stopping by a side altar with a statue of Mary in an old Catholic church.  She may have been going to that very church her whole life.  What had she seen in her time?  What, then, was her prayer?

Sue always looks carefully at any stained glass windows when we visit a church.  We sometimes quiz each other on the attributes that indicate a particular saint.  In that same Catholic church was a large window of Peter, no doubt holding the keys to the kingdom.  But, at the very top of it was a small, circular pane — of a rooster.  Maybe the greatest reminder ever.

Once, in a large, packed church, prayers of intercession were being read and the congregants were responding in turn.  There was a prayer for a person whose name seemed vaguely familiar.  Then I realized I had seen it in the paper:  He was the man who had attempted to bomb an airliner in flight on Christmas Day.

It took my breath away.

Matthew 5:44 reads, “Love your enemies.”  Here was a church that was praying for one.  Think about how radical an act that is in today’s world.

There were far too many touching moments to recite them all here.  In a church built by Icelandic immigrants in the little prairie town of Minneota, all thirteen of us at the service (counting the pastor) stood in a semicircle around the altar, holding hands, praying before we received communion.  It was as if we were transported back to an early gathering of Christians.

At a monastery of Benedictine Sisters in North Dakota, each of the prayers that Catholics rush through were a beat or two slower and more meaningful, and the readings were full of expression, not delivered in the hurried, thoughtless way that they often are.  From beginning to end, it was a moving experience.

The structures we visited ranged from incredibly ornate (the Russian Orthodox church won that category easily) to very plain.  We even went to the same building two weeks in row, to see how it was used by two distinctly different groups of worshipers.  One was a morning service for the aging, small, liturgically-based congregation which owned the building, and the other was a vibrant evening gathering of young adults (we definitely were out of our demographic) who rented it from them and no doubt provided much-needed financial support.

However, a church is not just a building but the people who gather there together.  It is of course not fair to pass judgment on the culture of a worship community based upon an hour or a bit more, but you do get some strong impressions by watching how people interact with each other (and with a couple of strangers in their midst).

Each set of my notes has a fairly detailed section on the message given by the pastor that week.  As I scan them now, there is a rich trove of ideas waiting to be rediscovered.  There was a memorable homily on “developing a spirit of excellence,” based on Proverbs 22:29.  In the best line of the year, Sue said, “It made me want to go home and shine my shoes.”

You can do a search on Amazon to find the book I was going to write, but you’ll come up empty.  Sue was right about it never happening, but not for lack of material.  I came up with over fifty themes and ideas that I wanted to explore, and that was before I really took a deep dive into the notes and other collected material.

I ended up going down the rabbit hole, or rather a series of rabbit holes:  church history, theology, the inability of the Catholic hierarchy to address its problems (still true, almost a decade later), and on and on.  I have stacks of books — and extensive paper and electronic files.  What I don’t have is a book of my own.

Maybe I felt like my observations needed a gravitas that I couldn’t provide.  Maybe it was just procrastination or laziness.  In any case, I failed to do what I wanted to do.

The preliminary title was A Wandering Year, although maybe it should have been A Wondering Year.  I have a picture I took at sunrise one morning — the new light reflecting off of the windows of the church my dad attended as a boy — that I thought should be on the cover.  I wrote a preface and part of the first chapter.  That may be as far as I will ever get.

Even if that’s the case, it was still an amazing journey.



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