A longtime friend’s mom died at age 90 in late August, and the family brought her back to Cincinnati for burial. I attended the funeral mass held at the parish where my friend and I were in grade school together for a few years. Marveling that she had not been to this church since adolescence, Elaine remarked on how strange it felt to return. Although I’ve been there many times over the years for weddings and funerals, being with Elaine and her family conjured the past for me too. Sitting in the pew after communion, still tasting the host and wine, I looked up at the large mosaic figure of Jesus on the back wall and recalled being here with my grandparents on the many weekends that we stayed with them during childhood, well before my family moved to the neighborhood and joined the parish. Recognition welled up of my Catholic lineage both in this particular place and the wider church, and tears stung the corners of my eyes. I hadn’t been to mass at all in more than three months and a sense of rupture surprised me with its force. Was this some kind of sign? I could hardly imagine returning to the Catholic Church.
Out of a clear blue several days later, a negative consequence of not attending church suddenly presented itself in my thoughts. In the preceding year I had been to Sunday mass no more than a half dozen times, and until that moment after communion at the funeral, had felt zero regret about the decision. My husband intended to go regularly but missed often, in part because I wasn’t going. I felt a little bad about that but not entirely responsible. While eating lunch on this day, it occurred to me that church provides connection to a form of community for us as a couple, distinct from friends or family, which is difficult to replicate. The realization that for 24 of our nearly 25 years together a faith community had been integral to our joint life raised a more nuanced and intriguing question: Do we need church?
Further pondering and much discussion over several days surfaced two things. First, the clarity that we as a couple wanted to resume regular attendance at mass on Sunday. And second, that we would make my seeking and questioning impulses a joint project by interspersing mass at our parish with visits to other denominations. We implemented part one that very Sunday. To my great relief, no one greeted us with “Where have you been?” or “It’s SO good to see you here,” and I am forever grateful to a woman who I don’t know well and rarely speak to at any length. She and her husband usually sit across the aisle and back from us. As we sat down she got up from their pew and walked over to warmly say hello and converse about our son who is away at college. I was touched by her unexpected gesture that said “welcome” so clearly.
In my absence a new music director was hired, and I really liked his hymn selections and prayerful style. Being able to sing in community was a gift to my alienated soul. The day’s Gospel passage, “Who do you say that I am?” seemed custom made for me, though I had no answer to the question until the communion rite when the priest used the phrase “bread of life,” pieces I did not put together until many days later. But no single detail can really explain Mystery. On the way home, I broke down at hearing myself say almost in wonder, “I felt OK there.” I felt alright to be in the pew still carrying all my doubts and questions and unbelief and rejected theology and disaffection for the institution. I wasn’t worried about the contradiction inherent in the choice to be there that day or more often going forward. I felt OK doing this completely irrational thing because intuition said I should. And I’m unconcerned about where it will or will not lead, whether it’s a long-term plan or a whim of the moment. I feel fully accepted by [Jesus/God/Godde/Sophia/Whoever] and just as importantly, by myself, in being this conflicted, illogical, confused person.