Such a simple idea, and still somehow so difficult to realize.
I am usually pretty reluctant to share much about my spiritual life with anybody, because it is one of those things which in my humble opinion is just plain private. I have always considered questions about my faith, especially when posed by perfect strangers (“Have you been saved?”), an overt violation thereof. Kinda like asking me which underpants I chose this morning: none of your dang business. And anyway, why do you care? So I am living a little dangerously in this post.
I’ve been an Episcopalian since I was five, when my mom decided to take me to a small but oddly formal Episcopal church (“high” church) in one of Memphis’ older neighborhoods not far from our home; it was also where I attended kindergarten for a half day a week that year. In the intervening years I was exposed to all kinds of Episcopal parishes—small to large, suburban to midtown, high church to low church, attached to Episcopal schools (which I also attended), or not, and for the longest tenure, a large, very wealthy diocesan cathedral where people go to see and be seen, and where some parishioners hold keys to the city—have buildings and such named for them. My young family—my now ex-husband, and son, and myself—had a horrible and painful disconnect from that particular parish about a decade ago, which is a long, tawdry tale for another day.
When I moved to Vermont I had been without a church home for all that time; the day I was shown what would become my New England community I noted a tiny, beautiful Episcopal church just past the entrance to my new neighborhood. One gorgeous late summer day as I zipped by the church in running shoes with my dog I recognized a ballet school dad and his two daughters, and the parish rector, working on the church lawn. I stopped and we spoke for a while, after which the rector took it on himself to make me feel welcome there any time. It was a heady feeling to have been here for only a couple of weeks and to recognize someone and in turn be recognized by them. On a Sunday morning not long after that I asked myself a simple question: you wanna sit here alone all day, or go meet some more people? My motivation was uncomplicated. Not an especially spiritual decision, though some might argue otherwise.
Going back to church has forced me to revisit how I feel about church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular. With the passing of time I find more clarity in my answers. I have been to other churches in my life, and to synagogues on a couple of occasions. Some of those experiences were uplifting and some were oppressive and awful. I will say that I enjoy the liturgy in the Episcopal Church because at its best it can be quite beautiful, and it reminds me of the meditative nature of daily ballet class (yes, really). Of course, the downside to this is that I also sometimes find myself ignoring the liturgy and flipping on the autopilot. But there is meditation in that, too.
My first morning in church last fall after a long absence I was overcome by emotion, and I can’t really explain that. But I was overcome by emotion in general at the time, and so I may have felt simply a flowering of what was already just below the surface.
Today I was overcome again. I almost did not go to church. Our rector, whom I like a great deal, has been on vacation for the past couple of weeks, and I am a creature of habit who prefers the security and predictability of the same guy delivering a thoughtful message every Sunday. But when push came to shove I decided I was being provincial and needed to go if only to engage the liturgical autopilot for an hour.
In the end I was glad I did, but also made to feel pushed and finally inadequate, if by my own doing. The substitute priest—who also happens to be Chairman of the Department of Religion at nearby Dartmouth—delivered a simple and powerful message: Christ urged his followers to love everyone. Everyone. Including enemies. He went on to explain that this commandment has no exceptions, period. There was more to his sermon, of course. There was interesting colloquial language about trademarks and logos, with the tie-in that love should be its own trademark. But the distillation of his message was, just, love everyone as Christ commanded. And during the Prayers of the People he added a thoughtful supplication for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And for the bombers themselves.
If we consider ourselves Christians (and I probably in fact fail to make the mark there), it is how we are supposed to be. I am not kidding myself. I don’t even come close to being able to fulfill that commandment, not even for a nanosecond. I can at least imagine it. When Osama bin Laden masterminded and executed the atrocity of 9/11, like so many other parents of young children I found myself trying to help my then-second grader put the events of that day in some kind of perspective, as I struggled to do the same for myself. One of my child’s peers kept riddling his parents with the question: How can someone who does not even know me, hate me?
I remember explaining to my own child that even Bin Laden was once a tiny, sweet-smelling infant, who somebody cradled, and rocked, and loved. But in my heart of hearts I knew I would feel better if he and his minions were obliterated.
Nope. I am not even close to possessing the capacity to love everyone. Because I am a mom, and have spent two decades parenting a son, I can at least imagine compassion for the two young men who caused so much damage in Boston. Were I the parent of a victim, though, would I feel the same way? I am not a great thinker or philosopher, and so I leave the big questions of the universe to those who are. A friend of mine who left this world far too soon was quoted in her own obituary as having said God put us here to help each other. She was a much better person than I. I can at least imagine a world in which love rules the day, even if I can’t come close to achieving that milestone in my own tiny life. Good thing this is not how the story ends.