Right off the bat, I’d like to stress that at no point will this be an exercise in comparative moral lifestyles, one ideology being better or worse than another, or discovering capital-T Truth through God. Frankly I still don’t care for the Old Testament. Contemporary Christian music still feels like an abscess in my ears. I’m still very liberal.
But lately some have inquired about my returning to church after a long absence. I suppose it began with a friend dragging me along and the tremendous, unplaceable, areligious appeal of being in a Catholic church on Easter Sunday. But really it began in grad school: I went not searching for something to believe in, but to see people who believed in something – blatant yet secret voyeurism, in effect. The churchgoers were ultra-pretty in the way that you wonder what kind of defense system their pores are working with. Not once could I claim to have been ‘filled with the Spirit’, but I went, week after week.
That was bound to be a phase, even if I hadn’t bolted from Orange County. I liked the visual experience of Rock Harbor, with the cool grey everything, high ceilings, exposed wood, and monastic lighting. But that fades, like waiting an hour too long for your room in a ritzy hotel lobby. What stuck was a Catholic church in the Pacific Palisades – an area just as la-de-da as it sounds to non-Californians, but the church is not. So what the hell is one doing in a church every week with no vested religious interest?
There are infinite boredoms to be had: painful boredoms, tolerable boredoms, religious boredoms. As a young boy with sprites of energy, I felt all the infinite boredoms in Catholic church, except for religious. But now I’m older and the conditions are perfect; and for such an experience, you will need: wooden pews neither comfortable nor un-, a book of 900 hymns with little variance and not much titillation to begin with, weekly repeated phrases between these hymns, and a sermon from the Bible that SCOTUS would deem ‘strict constructionism’. (I.e: a reading from the Bible in different phrasing.) With all of the above, you are numbed but attentive, in between dead and alive, reminded of mortality without its grim shade. Religion can appear like a cult, but at its best, it is a devotion to devotion.
Perhaps my deepest-held conviction about church is that it should be like a golf shot in a strong wind; its most perfect form is at the point of contact and the higher you get the ball into the air, the worse it’s going to be. A simpleton’s extrapolations from the Bible matter as much to me as a PhD’s from seminary, because in the end, an extrapolation is all it can ever really be. The point of church is putting a simple truth in front of your face, over and over again: there is something undefinable and vast living within each of us. Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s a myocardial infarction waiting to happen. As a would-be storyteller, this assurance is like Jesus hosting a press conference; it’s a reminder that you aren’t nuts, that people arrive bright and early under the auspices of religion, but really their “thing” inside is no different than what you are experiencing secularly.
Despite claiming the gaudy capital of the world and the buildings themselves, there is such a lack of showiness in the whole procession of Catholic mass, right down to the surprisingly fast pace. As megachurches crop up left and right, and people evangelize and proselytize— and dear God that hand-waving – the Catholic church has only a subcurrent of the dutiful. Not in the ‘let’s get this over with’ sense, nor the ‘I’m better than you’ sense… more like the national anthem. It moves at the speed it needs to, with the respect it deserves, and the natural emotion it arouses. The best anthems have traditionally been those by singers who did not try to make it their own, but by those who showed up to work and just happened to be a phenomenal singer. (Marvin Gaye being the exception.)
That’s what we respond to in church and in football games. We have our gifts and we need a reminder that they are not without a lifesource; we don’t have to follow a deity’s footsteps, but we don’t have to do it alone either. The forgiveness aspect speaks to accepting that you have been attacked by things you can’t explain and you have lost and yet the interconnected wellspring remains. We don’t have to know anything other than that there is something larger out there, be it the creative spirit or midichlorians; realize this and bam – you’re an equal participant of religion.
The wars of this spirit’s different labels will never end, which makes it even more real to an agnostic. This force has to belong to the individual, not historical accuracy, and as it affects us it changes far beyond the given definition. But no one could understand something like that, so we call it God.