JC’s Confessions #12

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

I don’t miss going to church.

I’m writing this after being unable to attend in-person mass for two and a half months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been watching a pre-recorded mass on television and often reading a homily from the Catholic Women Preach website. These are good resources, but I feel more like an observer than a participant. Obviously, there is no opportunity to receive communion, which is a very important part of Catholic practice.

I should interject that there has never been a time in my life when I haven’t gone to church every weekend. For many years, I was involved in music ministry and liturgy planning. I am also a long-time advocate for church reform, including the ordination of women, the recognition of equality among the laity and clergy, and the model of servant-leadership. In 2005, my parish home was shattered due to abuses of power. Those wounds have never healed, but I still continued participating in mass, even though I would sometimes cry – and sometimes feel that I could write a more thoughtful homily than the one I heard in church.

Perhaps, being an isolated home observer feels safer than being in the midst of a congregation when I get emotional. It’s also unlikely that televised mass will plunge into fraught topics, so there is a certain level of safety that doesn’t exist when you are in the pews.

Some church congregations or groups have taken to meeting via Zoom or other kinds of video conferencing during the pandemic. The congregations that I know that have done this are much smaller, though, so there is opportunity for interactions, such as offering prayer petitions. There are well over 1,000 families in my parish here, which makes meaningful videoconferencing impractical. Some of the church reform groups with whom I affiliate are offering prayer services, which is appealing in concept, but I worry that participating would make it even more difficult to remain within the institutional church. Leaving has been a decades-long temptation for me. [There is not enough room in this post to explain that struggle. Maybe, someday…]

I received a letter from my parish, explaining that this weekend they will begin celebrating mass under a new protocol. The priest will livestream weekend masses so that people can see and hear it on their phones or other wifi devices from the church parking lot. At communion, several Eucharistic ministers will zigzag through the parking lot, stopping at each car so that its occupants can come out and receive communion and then get back in their cars so that they won’t be near to anyone else.

This scenario does not appeal to me. I worry about the risk to the Eucharistic ministers, who will be in close contact with dozens of people, albeit outdoors. Other than being able to receive the Eucharist, the participation quotient is about the same as watching a televised or live-streamed mass, other than being in your car in whatever weather that day offers instead of in your home.

The root meaning of the word liturgy is “the work of the people.” To me, the current methods of celebrating liturgy at a distance feel more like watching a performance. I don’t know if I will adjust to this over time or not. I also don’t know if, many months from now when larger gatherings with singing are reasonably safe to attend, it will be difficult for me to muster the energy to leave my home and be in the midst of people and all the uncertainties that involves.

I don’t know and it makes me sad.

Interspirituality on Sunday

Following up on my prior post about the Interspirituality Conference, I wanted to add what happened on Sunday morning.

I attend 7:30 Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel where we were observing the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is Good Shepherd Sunday.  Because of the conference, I was especially attuned to the references to Jesus saying that there were other sheep “not of this fold” who also follow the shepherd’s voice, which correlates so well with interspirituality and the core beliefs of religious, philosophical, and humanist traditions toward love, peace, connection, and unity. There were so many other moments during our sung and spoken prayer that spoke of “all” in the universal sense, rather than as all the assembly or all Catholics or all Christians. I am thankful to be here at this time, instead of in the pre-Vatican II days when Catholics regularly condemned those who were not (strongly observant) Catholics. I am also thankful that Pope Francis regularly holds meetings with those of many different spiritual beliefs, as well as those who are atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc., giving public witness to the dignity of each person.

I arrived early at First Congregational for the 10:00 service which was the official conclusion of the Interspirituality conference and was pleased when Jamie came to sit with me. With my daughters no longer at home and my mom dealing with a string of health issues, I most often attend without a companion, so it was nice to have a friend next to me.

The congregation, under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Art Suggs, is very progressive, open, and inclusive. I had not seen such an enthusiastic – and mobile – greeting of one another during the opening of the service since the Ecumenical Christian Church at Smith College when I was a student in the late 1970s-early 1980s.  The hymns and prayers were expansive and filled with light and love. The Scripture passage from chapter 10 of John’s gospel was a continuation of the small section that had been proclaimed at mass and referred back to the good shepherd, which was a beautiful connection for me.  In the passage, Jesus quotes Psalm 82 which says “You are gods.” This passage had come up during the weekend sessions as a millennia-old reference to the indwelling of the Divine in human beings, so it was a natural transition to Kurt Johnson’s sermon, “The Coming Interspiritual Age,” which synopsized the insights shared during the conference and gave hope that many around the world are moving beyond the rigid boundaries separating people from one another and into an emerging Second Tier Consciousness which unifies across religions, philosophies, nationalities, and all else that separates us. I again regret my inability to convey this adequately and hope that people who want to learn more will look for resources such as this website.

I wrote in my prior post about anticipating hearing the organ at First Congregational again. One of the lovely things about the structure of the service is that it incorporated the prelude and postlude within the service itself, so that one can actually listen, avoiding the “accompanied pep rally” experience that especially postludes can become. I appreciated that the postlude registration included some of the reed stops, because I so appreciate the Skinner-style reeds that are full and rich rather than thin and piercing. I managed to only tear up a little as I remembered being at the organ with Searle Wright. Had the repertoire included Franck or Dupré or one of Searle’s compositions I’m sure I would have been sobbing.

In a final Spirit-led moment, at the coffee hour after the service, I joined a conversation that Jamie was having with Heidi, one of the women of the church who had been such a great help to us during the conference. The conversation turned to the organ and I had a chance to share with her some of my experiences with Searle and the instrument. I must have had my poet hat perched invisibly on my head as I was going on about how organs breathe, but, fortunately, Jamie and Heidi were receptive listeners. As it turns out, Heidi’s husband had just been speaking about the need to invest in the upkeep of the organ, so it was particularly meaningful to her to hear me speak about Searle, the instrument, and their place in the history of the church and its ongoing legacy.  I am not sure what work needs to be done, but I am hopeful that the organ will be restored and preserved, not altered, or worse, abandoned. I believe that the Spirit moves and speaks through the organ’s pipes as surely as it does through our human voices and through all of creation.