My Sundays typically involve church. Growing up Roman Catholic, church was a big part of my life. I felt God in the liturgy of the mass, the rituals of incense, candles, and music. As an adult I have found that going to church regularly refreshes my soul and keeps me connected to God, my community and my family. For the past several months, I have not been feeling quite the same about church. I have been struggling with feeling my connection to the Divine. I know a lot of my struggle with my faith is due to the challenges I have been dealing with in my family life. The liturgy of the mass offers little comfort. I don’t know if it’s a chicken or egg thing. Perhaps because I have been struggling in my family life, my church attendance has been spotty, or perhaps because my church attendance has spotty, I have been struggling in my family life.
My Buddhist friend, who knows my struggle, and feels my despair, invited me a lay Buddhist meeting. She talks to me enthusiastically about how her life and her children’s lives have turned around since they started chanting. We went to lunch one day and I met with one of her Buddhist leaders. It was an inspiring and insightful conversation. I have no doubt that the Buddhist faith is working in their lives. I accepted the invitation to the Buddhist meeting. At first I was a bit self-conscious about chanting words I wasn’t even sure I was pronouncing correctly. But, as the sound washed over me in community with the other women in the room I felt peace. It was a very positive experience that was both familiar and strange. It was strange in the sense, that the language was foreign and I struggled to find meaning in the words we chanted. It was familiar in the sense that the ritual of the prayer beads, the gong and chanting seemed a lot like the rituals I had grown up with and which gave me comfort.
This morning Juan and Diego had to go to soccer practice. The other kids were sleeping in. I didn’t want to go to church by myself, so I decided I would take Molly on a walk to the big outdoor church. Nature. It’s the other place I feel God. I don’t get outdoors nearly enough, but today the air was crisp, the sun was bright and I needed to move my body. I announced to my kids that we weren’t going to church this morning. I think they were a bit relieved they would have a leisurely Sunday morning.
I drove to nearby Eaton Canyon, took my car key off the ring and stuck it in my iPhone case. As Molly and I hiked the canyon I listened to a talk given by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran preacher who had visited my church a couple of weeks ago. At one point during the talk she explained how she had grown up in the fundamentalist Church of Christ, and then decided to become a Lutheran when she experienced and fell in love with the liturgy. She said liturgy feels like “choreographed sacredness” and that it was like a “stream that flowed long before us and will continue long after us so that we… can be immersed in the language of truth and promise and Grace.” Her words rang so true for me.
I listened and worshipped the nature around me, trying to feel the presence of God. It was challenging because Molly kept pulling on her leash and the canyon was filled with hikers, joggers, and a lot of dogs. By the time we had hiked over a mile,
About halfway back to the car it occurred to me that the key I had placed in my iPhone case was no longer there. You know the key? The one with the computer chip in it that costs hundreds of dollars to replace? I panicked. Whatever sense of peace and Grace I felt during my hike evaporated. Molly and I sprinted back to the spot where I took the picture. Along the way, I kept dodging hikers, dogs and the occasional horse and dog poop, all the while looking, hoping, praying to find the key.
I have lost a lot of things before. I have found them too, in odd, unexpected places. My mom is the same way. She has taught me to pray to St. Anthony whenever I lose things. Along the trail I prayed to St. Anthony again. I laughed at myself at the absurdity of me losing the key and the even greater absurdity of finding it along the well-traveled trail covered with leaves, dirt and rocks.
I arrived at the spot where I had taken the picture. I looked among the shrubs, under leaves and turned over rocks. It wasn’t there. I made the walk back to the car my eyes downcast, searching for the key, missing the beauty of nature and ignoring the presence of God around me. I thought of the irony in losing the key in my quest to find God. By the time I reached my car, I still hadn’t found the key and felt resigned that it was probably gone. I called Juan and told him the bad news, and ask that he bring me the one spare key we had left.
Juan and Nico arrived, prepared to do one more sweep through the canyon. I refused to go, saying it was a lost cause. Before we left, I decided I’d go into the ranger station to see if the key had been turned in. The ranger told me that no one had turned in any keys and asked me for my name and the key description. Just then another ranger walked into the office. The second ranger asked, “You lost a key?” Then she pulled out my key from her shirt pocket. She said someone along the trail had just turned it in.
I took the key and in a moment of evangelizing told the ranger about St. Anthony. She said I should go buy a lottery ticket. I replied that I was going to light a candle instead. Nico drove home with me and along the way we laughed and talked about the miracle. In my best Southern evangelical preacher voice I shouted, “Allelulia!” I asked him “Can I have an Amen?” Getting into the spirit of it, Nico shouted “Amen!” I enthused, “See? You just need to have faith.” Nico asked, “Well, what’s the lesson here?” I paused and thought about it. Then, I replied, I guess the lesson is that I just need to have faith that what has been lost will be found.
Last week was Dia de las Muertos. This is centuries old holiday which originated in in Mexico and is currently enjoying a surge in popularity. The holiday honors loved ones who have died. Celebrants typically build a three-tiered altar called ofrendas and decorate with symbols as marigolds, papel picado and photographs and favorite foods of the deceased. On November 1 and 2 it’s thought that the veil which separates the living and the departed is thinner, allowing the living to experience the presence of the deceased. Even though it sounds eerie or maybe a bit morbid, I really like this holiday.
I love the decorations, the foods and the tradition. I don’t think of it as eerie but see the holiday as an opportunity to remember my grandparents, my cousin and others who are no longer here with me physically but remain a part of my life. One year I put together an altar and another time I joined in a local Muertos celebration. This year I was so busy I didn’t build an altar or join one of the many events around Los Angeles.
This week I had to go to a meeting just down the street from the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. The meeting ended and I decided to stop by the cemetery and say hello to my grandparents. The cemetery was filled with flowers, especially marigolds whose strong scent is believed to help guide the departed to earth.
I stopped at the flowershop and bought a bouquet to bring to my grandparents. I thought I knew where their graves were located but I couldn’t find them so I went to the office to get a map. Since I am, as my husband likes to say, “directionally challenged,” I wandered around lost, even after I had the map. There were so many graves and no landmarks. Frustrated, I paused under a pine tree. In my frustration I asked my grandmother to help me find her and set out again among the graves. All of a sudden I felt something inside my pants pricking me. I must have looked ridiculous as I squirmed around and hopped up and down until a pine needle fell out of my pant leg. My grandmother must have had a good laugh at my expense. Then, a cemetery groundskeeper approached me and asked if I needed help. I don’t know if my grandmother heard my plea, or the groundskeeper was just drawn to me by the sight of my ridiculous gravesite dance! Whatever. I finally found my grandparents’ graves. I put out the flowers, said hello and was reminded of all the good times I had with them.
Even though missed missed the actual date, I celebrated my own Dia de los Muertos, laughing and dancing with my grandparents.
How do you honor your ancestors?
For the last two years on Good Friday, I published a post written after I attended the afternoon Good Friday services at my church. You can read that here. This year, I am unable to attend the afternoon services, but I will attend this evening’s Tenebrae Service. A lovely, candlelit service where we wait for the mystery of the resurrection.
Last night I attended another one of my favorite services of the year, Maundy Thursday. The Maundy Thursday service is the ritual foot washing, service among those congregants who wish to participate. The service reminds us of the caring and loving example that Jesus showed his disciples when he washed their feet. This foot washing service makes some people uncomfortable. I understand. I love this ritual but it took me a bit to become accustomed to it. Even the apostle Peter felt uncomfortable having Jesus wash his feet.
I sat in the pews with Juan and listened to the sermon in preparation of the foot washing, when I heard the rector say something which kind of startled me. He said, participation was greater than belief. He explained that one could be “religious” and believe in the mystery of the cross and the resurrection, but that was not greater than participation. He went on to say that Jesus gave us an example of participation when he washed his disciples feet, when he broke bread and served wine to the apostles during his Passover meal. Jesus gave us an example of participation when he did all of this on the last night he was alive, and when he told his followers to, “love one another as I loved you.”
I sat in the pew, moved by the prayers, the hyms, the dimly lit church and I watched as others in around me got up from the pews to have their feet washed and wash each others feet. Juan leaned over and said, “I want to be like Peter. I don’t feel like getting my feet washed.” I smiled at him and nodded. I understood how Juan, and maybe Peter felt.
This year Holy Week arrived before I was ready. I didn’t have a chance to get a pedicure. My toe nail polish was a mess, my feet were callused. I really didn’t want to wash anyone else’s feet either. Then, I thought about the photo I had seen earlier in the day. The photo of Pope Francis washing a woman’s feet and kissing them. So humble. So loving. How must that woman have felt?
Juan and I left our pew and walked to the foot washing station. I knelt before another parishioner who was seated before a basin. I introduced myself to her and one of the acolytes brought me a jug of warm water and a clean towel. I knelt down before the woman and poured the water over her delicate feet. I rinsed them, using my hands. I thought about what it meant to participate in this religious ritual. What it meant to be a servant, and care for others the way Jesus demonstrated to us. When I was done I dried her feet and we switched places. The acolyte brought us clean water, a dry towel, and an empty basin. She washed my feet, gently, carefully. It seemed to take forever. All the while I was aware of how uncomfortable I felt. Sure, I get pedicures, but this was so different. I could tell by the care she took to wash my feet that she was doing this out of love.
Perhaps that’s why the particpation part of religion is so important. I could have sat in the pew and prayed, sang hyms and gazed at the beauty of my surroundings. I could have looked on as everyone else particpated in the foot washing. I might have stood by while everyone else experienced love and demonstrated love. But, I woud have missed out on fully experiencing the most important message of day and Jesus’ lesson to us all, “love one another.”
Last week I was asked to give a “witness” in my church, All Saints Pasadena. For those of you who, like myself, did not grow up in a very charismatic church, (or any church for that matter), a “witness” is when a member of the congregation gets up and [insert southern dialect here] testifies. I learned about this a few years ago when Juan and I were asked to speak in front of our congregation.
Every October our church has Stewardship season, a time when some of the church members begin telling their story about how they found All Saints Church and why they pledge money to support the church and its mission. I heard a member say that talking about money and church used to make him uncomfortable. I get that. I was uncomfortable at first too. But, once I understood that supporting my church really does support its mission of love, inclusion and justice, I felt good about making a financial pledge.
I was also nervous about having to share my story. I struggled writing about what to say. I went through several drafts and still wasn’t happy with it. Then I met with Jamie, a woman from our church who is an acting coach. (Only in LA!) She is also a blessing. Not only did Jamie sense my discomfort with my material, she helped to draw out those parts of my speech which were personal, which really told my story. I scrapped 90% of what I’d written and went back to my computer. When I focused on the intimate part of my story, the words just flowed and I ended up with a draft which I liked. I met with Jamie again and this time as I read the words, I could not get through my story without choking up at certain parts. I thought that after a few rehearsals, I would be able to get through my witness without getting emotional during the church services, but I cried all three times.
In the end, even though it was a struggle to write, and re-write and then share my story in front of my congregation, it was really a blessing. I felt uplifted by my community, as they wept along with me, appreciated my words and in the words of Sally Field, “liked me.” (This is LA, after all.)