There is all sorts of ways to pray; for me my favorite has always been Vespers. I love to sit in a church smelling of incense and listen to music. To not have to respond with anything but my breath. It’s low commitment, to just listen but being present seems to be the greatest gift we can give anything, especially ourselves.
In Baltimore, my church growing up was warm and comforting. When only a few people were there the space never felt empty somehow, and when families would pack the pews for Christmas Eve Mass, it felt more like a friendly gathering than being crushed at a concert. Somehow, there was always space.
I have a soft spots for places of worship, I suppose because I long to feel that I have a place to hide when the world feels too overwhelming, and perhaps that place is also a community. A community I could also be part of.
As much as I love my home church. I felt this most acutely in Europe. I sat and cried in three of the most famous churches in the world. One in Ireland (St. Patricks), one in London (St. Pauls), one in Paris (Notre Dame).
I sat in the area reserved for praying and lit a candle in each space. I lit a candle because I believe that light is magic and also science and therefore something I can have faith in. I prayed but I didn’t fold my hands, or maybe I did at first and my palms were sweaty because I felt embarrassed to be praying in public. But I was in a church, so why did I feel so vulnerable anyway?
I was surrounded by these big stone buildings and these magnificent glass windows and this intricate wood scrolling all made with the absolute care and sureness that God existed and would appreciate the craftwork. The builders, and woodworkers and glassblowers and candle-stick makers and stone masons;everyone who helped create this mammoth structure and everyone who upholded it believed in God so much they made beauty to glorify and honor someone they had never met, something they had never seen.
Each time, I sat there thinking: “I envy them” and also: “Do I believe in anything that much?”. So I cried. I cried because I felt silly for asking myself that. I felt silly for crying. For being envious of dead people who believe in something so much they dedicated their lives to it. I cried because I was strongly moved by the beauty that surrounded me. I cried because I could see myself sitting there from the outside and saw perfectly normal, healthy young woman having a breakdown over something she couldn’t name and I felt bad for myself.
As I rubbed my snotty nose on my hand over and over and round tears fell onto my skirt; I finally thought something new. It is ok to cry in church, if there was ever a place to talk to God, or wonder about god, or lament your faith or your lack of—chuch was a good place to start.
“Lean in,” the building seemed to whisper.
“Let go,” the mournful faces of the saints carved out of hot sand suggested.
“let the walls hold you, we are stone.” “Let the benches comfort you. We are wood. We are as organic as you are. We are of the earth too.”
And then I had a thought, perhaps you aren’t suppose to hold yourself up while you are there. You let the walls do that. You let the stone and the iron and the wood do that. They don’t fall in like you do. They don’t collapse as easily.
And neither does God.
And I felt better. A little. And I lit another candle, said another prayer. More science, more magic. More of the explainable and unexplainable together.
Things in Europe are so old it’s hard not to feel moved to touch walls from the 1500’s. How ridiculous to be standing there where so many had stood before and so many will stand after and all of us connected and disconnected just the same.
I often wonder if I will be married in the church I grew up in. Will my babies be baptized there? Will it be a place I continue to go for Christmas and Easter masses? Will I be a Bride taking pictures in the garden where I use to play at recess in elementary school; my bridal veil only a longer more expensive version of the one I wore at my first communion? How round the world could be. How purposeful and devoted.
How easy it was, suddenly, to see the connection. How often I ignored this connection and pushed forward with no regard for anything other than what I wanted in the moment.
What a gift to be able to pay attention, even if paying attention means crying. Sometimes paying attention is just breathing, being present no matter the circumstances. Perhaps paying attention is a type of worship. Science and magic. Science and magic. The unexplainable and the explained joined in harmony among the music. Among the light.