Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Church #3 of 10: Holy, Holy, Holy High

Andy Barnett was best described by my best friend, Leah, as “child-like, but not childish.” He was (and likely still is) brilliantly talented, hilariously funny and eternally playful. When he walked, he smiled in way that made passersby believe he must be enjoying every step. He loved spending time alone in the outdoors, and was the type of person to comment gleefully on the sunrise. At mealtimes, he assessed his food with a ravishing grin and lived every bite like a 5-year-old eating a once-a-year bowl of ice cream for dinner. He was not greedy, but grateful, not selfish, but selfless, and most of all, he had a genuineness about him that made you feel lucky to be his friend. As studious as he was creative, Andy fit into the Oberlin mold while still thinking outside of the box. And though he struck me as contemporary, changing and “cool,” he introduced me to a church that was often accused of being the opposite. Episcopalians are sometimes described as anciently traditional, ceremonious and frankly, somewhat Catholic. If I hadn’t known Andy and his church as two adjoining entities from the beginning of our relationship, I would never have guessed this as his denomination.

It was this introduction that challenged me to visit an Episcopalian church as part of my journey. If someone like Andy found a place there, it seemed likely that I would as well. There must be something about that church, I thought, that makes people want to endure the drab rituals, put aside the political creed, and decipher the shape-note hymnal.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is, in my opinion, very “high church,” even for Episcopalians. When we walked in, my mom said, “I haven’t been in a church like this since…Europe.” The floor creeks while the statues shine, the congregational seating is simple and musty while the area behind the metallic screen, with the altar and the choir and the clergy, is ornate and bright.

Goose bumps trickled up my arm and down my back. My stomach buzzed with an intriguing awe. Overwhelmed with the beauty like I saw in the churches in Spain and the spirits like those I felt when entering a historical graveyard, I was instantly hooked.

I have always been a sucker for history. I love hearing about the past, believing in legends and imagining “the olden days.” I’ve always felt like churches are where the spiritual and earthly paranormal interact. Everyday ghosts meet up with worshipped saints and whatnot. St. Mary’s is no exception. The building is almost 120 years old and the church, 150.

I could see each year in the woodwork, every heart and soul poured into this place.

The congregation for the 10:00 a.m. Eucharist (they don’t call it a “service”) was small, maybe 20 people at most. Though I had attended an Episcopal service before, this seemed extra-structured. The choir, clergy and bible processed in to a slow-moving hymn, complete with bells and incense. When it came time to read the Gospel, the bible was taken from the altar to the middle of the congregation, splashed with incense, and held open by one clergy while the other read. It was a beautiful symbol of tearing down the curtain and allowing the lay-folk to experience Jesus first-hand.

Interestingly, the things I thought I wouldn’t like about the service, I ended up enjoying the most. The tradition was comforting and consistent, the creed was uniting and I even found myself intrigued by the classically efficient music (which seemed to kill time better than it praised God). This church, these rituals, the denomination, has worked for so many people for so long and now, I can really understand why. There is a physical representation of faith, stored up in the history and structure, the stained glass and the ornate statues, and just like an old, but loved book or stuffed animal, it brings a sense of peace to the soul.

So far, this has been my most challenging church experience, because without making any elaborate gestures or fancy statements, the church still made me feel welcome. I was part of a larger entity, a greater Christian community, one to which I will likely return…at least once more.

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