Take Me to Church!
September 21, 2014
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words excerpted from Church Going, by Philip Larkin
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long.
Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence…..
Back at the door I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering….
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
Reading from Into The Infinite Together, by Stephanie Paulsell
Shortly before the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Patti Smith promised him that she would write the story of their relationship. But the great rock-and-roll poet “was obliged to wait until I could find the right voice,” she writes in Just Kids, the book by which she kept her promise….. But there is no voice powerful enough to bring her beloved friend back to life. With the grief of the one left behind, she asks, “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?”
The voice Patti Smith found to tell the story is a religious one that traces every creative impulse back to God, and it (is) formed by bedrock childhood experiences of absorption and ecstasy, shaped by childhood’s stories: “We were as Hansel and Gretel,” she writes, “and we ventured into the black forest of the world.”
…She remembers being a very young child and seeing a swan rise into the air, filling her with “an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.” Years later, when she records “Up There Down There,” she holds her memory of the swan as she sings, imbuing her performance with the yearning to speak of what is just beyond language, to stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, to bring what is inside of her and what is outside closer and closer.
Patti Smith was the child of questing parents who taught her to practice all that kept alive in her the desire she felt watching the swan beat its wings and fly. Prayer and reading and art were her entrance into the radiance of imagination, and absorption. She placed her mother’s copy of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs under her pillow, trying to take in its meaning before she could decipher its words…
She moved about New York City the way the great haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, traveled northern Japan: full of devotion, deeply aware of the invisible presence of the artists who had walked the same streets before her. Second Avenue was “Frank O’Hara territory”; the spirit of Dylan Thomas still lingered in the Chelsea Hotel. Sleeping outside, often hungry, she was nevertheless held by the city like a child who had been blessed by a good fairy.
Robert Mapplethorpe entered Smith’s life at precisely the moment she needed him. Trying to extricate herself from the unwanted company of a man in the park, she walked up to the beautiful boy she had seen in a bookstore and asked him to pretend to be her boyfriend. Not even knowing each other’s names, they grasped hands and ran toward the life they both craved….
They quickly developed ways of living together that supported each other’s aspirations and protected each other’s vulnerabilities. “We were never self-indulgent on the same day,” wrote Smith. When they only had enough money for a single museum admission, one would wait outside while the other went in to look for both of them.
“When I walked on the stages of the world without him,” Patti Smith writes, “I would close my eyes and picture him taking off his leather jacket, entering with me the infinite land of a thousand dances.”
When her friend died, she sang at his service at the Whitney, feeling all the while that he was just outside the museum, leaning against the wall, and waiting for her to come out to tell him what she had seen.
When I used to teach Sunday School, we started with a simple affirmation that went like this: We are Unitarian Universalists, with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that help. I thought of that over the summer, when I was reading a book about the fight for Civil Rights in Chicago in the 1960s. Written by Bob McKersie, a long term Unitarian, A Decisive Decade is an insider’s view of many of the key figures in the northern civil rights movement; a perspective he gained as an activist in Chicago, where he was a professor at the University of Chicago’s Business School. I was interested in what McKersie had to say, because I moved to Chicago not long after Harold Washington was elected mayor, the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city. In the mid-1980s, race remained an overarching theme. The neighborhood I lived in was integrated, but not particularly successfully. People summed it up by saying, “Hyde Park, where Black and White Unite Against the Poor.” And most people agreed that it was the business practices of the University that caused the tension. I wondered if McKersie had many real friends at work, or if he felt like an undercover agent. But all of that may be irrelevant this morning. What got me thinking was this sentence in McKersie’s preface: “So this story is the product of the feet (marching), of the heart (commitment) and of the head (commentary).”
I was fascinated by the order; which is the opposite of the one I used with children. In his tale, action leads to commitment. Our hearts are changed by what we do. All the head needs to do is provide commentary after the fact. At first I was puzzled by this, even as I was intrigued – how do you know what to do; what action to take; before you have thought about it, or made a commitment? But slowly I realized that McKersie believes we all pretty much know what to do. We know what is right. We just have to do it, and stay committed to it. The thinking is for sharing, learning from our experiences, and reminding other people of what they know to be right as well, and perhaps needling them into action. A Talmudic saying warns against over-thinking our prayers, saying it is a sure way to end up in hell, and a nun once explained that heaven and hell are equally experiences of a God made of pure light. It’s just that if you are at peace, you see it as radiant beams of joy, and if you are clouded with thought and worries, intense beams of light burn and torture you.
Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford, is an expert on evangelical religion, and has written about how the kind of liberal ecumenical churches that exist on the fringes of academia — read, us — approach religion with questions that are very abstract and intellectual. People ask why others believe, or how they can be sure. What is true? They gather evidence to prove or disprove, and talk a lot about ideas. She says that this is not how evangelicals approach religion at all. Instead, they work at figuring out how to feel God’s love, or how to become more aware of a loving presence in their lives. They are practical concerns. Wanting to feel joy or have hope, they attend church as part of a reach towards a life that might feel better than the one being lived today. They do things together. It’s about being connected to something sustaining, not really questioning what that source of sustenance might be, or how real it is.
I am not interested in an anti-intellectual religion. I actually do get some degree of comfort from thinking my way through things, and I don’t like elevating the role of emotion too much. It feels to me like our whole country is enslaved to emotion in many ways, and has lost the ability to think. Nevertheless, I see Luhrmann’s point, Belief is not the cornerstone of religion. Experience is. If we enjoy something; feel spoken to, or heard, or comforted, or inspired, or included, we will become committed to it, take it ever more seriously, reflect on it, and bring it to others. You can research a religion thoroughly on the web before you check it out in person, believing it is a perfect match. But if you walk through the door and nothing resonates, it’s not likely you will come back.
Why do you go to church? I decided Friday I had set myself up, asking this question. It isn’t a very good one, least of all to explore when you are already here. Perhaps a better question is WHEN – and I don’t mean attendance in response to medical crisis or existential suffering or a national tragedy. I mean do you go as part of a living community on a Sunday morning, or do you go in secret, somehow? It is striking to me how many things I read about church are so solitary; about being alone in a space that is set apart, hardly used. The impracticality is part of the beauty; and the building holds something that is invisible, but easier to glimpse when no one is there. In the poem we used as opening words today, we see Larkin entering the sanctuary only when he is sure that is free of services. He wants to commune, but not with people. It’s the air he’s after – it’s different in a church or temple. He described it as musty; but I think it is a mustiness that hints of buried treasure – something ancient and precious that we might be able to catch hold of, that will make us feel luminous and enriched. Someone, long ago, felt inspired enough to build a house for God. Is standing bareheaded in that space enough to let that spirit inhabit us? Larkin says it wasn’t worth stopping, but as he pedals around the countryside, his bicycle keeps veering towards old stone churches, and he stops, and crosses threshold after threshold.
The nature writer Annie Dillard once talked about knowing as a child that she would grow up and leave the Presbyterians to become a Catholic. She wanted majesty and ritual and Latin phrases washing over her, wiping away thought. The feeling she seems to have been after is some kind of invisible leadership, where the glory just happens without any human interference. She does attend mass, but she is not interested in the people. She wants something more direct between her and the ruler of the universe, but in the end, the service seems too safe, oblivious to authentic power. She wrote that she thinks “of the set pieces of the liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without getting killed, and so now they saunter through the service with no awareness of danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be genuinely shocked.” She wants to expect something; to be awake to otherworldly power; to the fact that the universe is not in her hands. Sadly, she says there is no wisdom in the safety of the liturgy, but “I belong in the high church, if I belong anywhere at all.”
Do you belong anywhere? How do you measure that? In June I was conducting a memorial service for a former member of this church. Pat was not one to embrace any claptrap just because someone in authority said so, or because it made you feel better. One of her kids came home from Sunday School almost 50 years ago with a picture of Jesus, teaching the disciples to be fishers of men, and Pat said, indelibly, to her seven year old, “Oh, God, you should never trust any one who is stupid enough to put that many men in a little boat.” Yet this same woman never hesitated to jump in and work to restore this church back in the 1960s, when it hovered like a grey ghost about the square; a building with no people. She was a church pillar, and an iconoclast.
At the reception after the service, I met a man who had been an active Unitarian Universalist, but was no longer. I asked why. One man told me that he realized he wasn’t getting anything out of it anymore — that on Sundays after church, he would get home and reflect that it wasn’t a good use of his time. In earlier years he had felt stimulated, interested, challenged, hopeful, provoked, and somewhere along the line, all that went away. He missed the element of moral grappling, of talking seriously with other people who were as worried about the planet, about war, and injustice as he was. He wanted real searching questions, even though he didn’t necessarily think there were answers.
I think feeling better is often a by-product of actually being better; that when we do the right thing and act in ways that promote values of justice, we do feel more hopeful, and more powerful. But acting in this way can also be profoundly isolating. Think of Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail, or Ruby Bridges, being in a first grade class all by herself; or Crystal Sutton, whom you know as Norma Rae, arrested for trying to get a union in the mill where she worked. These are just the names that are easy to refer to, and you know they signify all the other souls who paid the price for defying systems they knew to be wrong, even if they might be legal. But finding out own moral center does not mean we are at peace with our lives, or the choices we have had to make. We may be exhausted and troubled, and desperate to see something of ourselves in others, or to be part of a shared story, where the suffering means something, or leads somewhere. Being soothed by the space – the old windows and wavery glass, or the shiny business up at the holy end, as Larkin put it, is not quite enough. It is just the beginning. The real promise of church is always about transformation. Walking through the door is a kind of acknowledgement of our own desire to reach beyond our own small selves, and be part of something bigger, or more lasting.
In preparing for Pat’s memorial service, I talked a bit to her children, and one day Susan told me about a dream she had the night before. It was set on the Ipswich river, which was where her grandparents had lived when Susan was a child; where Pat had grown up, and where she had returned in retirement. The river was narrow, and cut in gentle curves through the bright green meadow, and the light was soft. Her mother was in a canoe, following the path of the river out to the sea, and she was singing a lullaby to Susan. She could feel that that’s what it was; a lullaby, keeping her safe through the night to come, even though she couldn’t quite catch the words. Then she realized she was humming along, and she woke up singing from all that dwell below the skies. The doxology was the lullaby her mother sang as she left the river for the sea. A goodbye that lets us begin again.
There is no order to the way we live. It’s all mixed up together – the action and the heart; the desire for justice and the heartbreak; the joy and the loss – So much happens, and we just keep trying to create sense of it all, and continue breathing. This is why we need church. It has something to do with coming together after we’ve been out in world, and coming up with a language or a practice that helps us share what we’ve seen; where we’ve been. We sing, and repeat words together; we listen, and inhabit silence — all to cultivate our inner lives, to help us learn to pay attention, and take measure of ourselves.
The language of church is how we learn we are not alone. I have a friend who always gives directions by counting churches – take a left after the fourth little white church, and then when you get to the Baptist church, take another left. It is very ineffective for navigating unfamiliar roads, but it makes me aware of how she sees her world as a web of sacred houses. She rests in them, and they speak to her. And inside church, we try to speak, too. We celebrate marriage, and the bond that comes with the giving of our word. We have ceremonies in which we name our children; and introduce them to the community as distinct beings, separate from us, yet with a destiny entwined with yours and mine, and that of every creature on the planet. The wars and the famines; the news we cannot bear to read – all that is part of us, too, and when we cannot speak of things, then silence becomes a language, like the vibration that hangs in the room just after the music stops. Some words drift from pages, like the child who put her mother’s book under her pillow, praying that the text would flow into her overnight, while she slept, so she, too, would be absorbed in its meaning. In the beginning was the word, but the meaning of the word … well, that comes in the sharing.
We may never get the words exactly right; we cannot quite articulate what it is we are trying to say – but it is the trying that counts. We are finding our way, like Patti Smith, waiting patiently, trying this way and that, for thirteen years, until she found the voice that brought her love back to life, even if it did not quite resurrect her friend. I think of how the lines we sing in this sanctuary, week after week, are not contained here. They were also coming from a canoe paddling quietly down river to the sea. They were in a dream. They were in Pat’s old friend, standing by her grave and wishing that he did not feel lonelier in church than he did at home. For a few moments, he is pulled back in, and soothed.
Years before she could write it down, before she could find the words to describe what it felt like or what it all meant, Patti Smith sang at a memorial service for her own friend. She was inside, and the thick wall of a museum rose around her like a fortress, or a cathedral. He was gone, but just there, on the other side of the wall, leaning against it; supporting and being held up, both at the same time. She opens her mouth, and the sound rises up, over the wall, and she knows he is singing along.
Closing Words from John Updike, in Pigeon Feathers and other stories, 1962
There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church…. What could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for us one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite (words) that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? To listen or not listen as someone tries to console us with ancient scraps and halting accounts, hopelessly compromised by words, that intimate something beyond… the windows, the flowers… There is so much to witness, arranged for us by withdrawn hands