Confessions of a Church Junkie

7 Nov

Iona Abbey

I have a minor confession to make. I’m a church junkie. I love churches and will take my fix almost anyway I can get it. I love visiting the spaces that people gather in for worship and have visited churches that ranged from a rustic, one room chapel in rural farmland and open spaces in the outdoors to monumental cathedrals and quite a range of varieties in between. Whenever I visit a place through which a large number of people visit or travel such as an airport, hospital, or national park I make a point of visiting the chapel. Sometimes I just take a look and note its uniqueness. Sometimes, I sit for a moment of silence and prayer.

The Painted Church near Captain Cook, HI

I think part of why I’m drawn to these places is a desire to find what the Celts called ‘thin places’. It was or is their description of places where one has a sense that the veil between this visible world and what lies beyond our sight is somehow thinner and we just might get a glimpse of the divine that is clearer than normal or at least better than what one may feel in a crowded mall on a Saturday.

Northumbria Chapel

Perhaps you’ve felt that too at a particular place or moment. It might have been in an ancient sanctuary in which there was a sense of the many souls who’d processed down those aisles over the years or maybe it had nothing at all to do with a structure but was felt in the witnessing of a sunset over the Pacific ocean or in the birth of your child. It can vary for each of us and I’ve felt a fluttering and lifting of my heart in those moments too. But for whatever reason, one of my go to places is a church – not that they all feel like holy ground, but the ones that do help make up for the ones that don’t so I keep visiting them when I have the chance.

A couple years ago, I went to Scotland with a group of seminary students to explore what is called Celtic Christianity and to find a thin place or two. While there, a lovely woman named Jane who was hosting myself and a fellow visitor at her flat in Glasgow took us to her church. I don’t recall its name or even the denomination it belonged to but I can remember what it looked like as clearly as if I’d been there last week. It was an old church by American standards, nicely worn in, and built in the Gothic style so popular in Scotland a couple or three centuries ago. After the worship service which was a story in itself to be shared another time, I chatted with a few of the locals about their church. One of them let me know that they’d recently finished a renovation and pointed out some of the structural elements. What captured my attention the most were the relief sculptures of faces looking down upon us from above the columns. This is a common sight in churches from the middle ages and these sculptures often represented Saints (with a big ‘S’ versus us common, garden variety saints with a little ‘s’) and were sometimes modeled after the faces of patrons of a given church in honor of their sponsorship in the building of that church.

The part of this informal lesson was the information that several of the newly carved faces were not replications of what had been there before, but were based on the faces of current members of the church. If one looked closely, telltale signs in modern eyeglasses and contemporary haircuts could be made out in the stone faces of contemporary folks mixing it up with traditional saints of centuries past. I liked that and learned that this was not a unique practice for artisans. I recently read of a church on the east coast with a similar story. A painter was hired to create new frescoes and looking for models, he chose those he knew, which is only natural. His pregnant wife became the model for the expectant virgin Mary and a local waitress was her face. The priest stood in for a servant at the Last Supper. There is a church in downtown Los Angeles called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that is filled with tapestries containing the likenesses of 135 saints. The funny thing is, they’re all based on local people who worked nearby in coffee shops, businesses, or were simply in the neighborhood at the right time and asked to step in be a model. People just like you and me being the models of saints adorning the walls of churches for anyone who wanders in to see and hopefully be inspired by. Go figure.

Some of these people were interviewed about their experience in this unexpected job of saint model and many responded that there was something about learning of who they were impersonating  and behaving like for a moment that made them want to act like the saint they were modeling. Perhaps they were inspired. Maybe they felt like they stood in a thin place for a moment. Maybe their lives became more lively. What I like about this all though is the reminder that inspiration, mentoring, and guidance is not just in the ancient tales of people who walked the earth long before we were ever thought of. It’s also found in those who share the same space with us.

As I write this, it is the evening of All Saints Sunday. It’s a day set aside in the Christian calendar to remember the saints in our lives – those whose lives have touched our lives and gone onto whatever lies beyond the veil of mortal vision. We remember them today especially as gifts of life from the source of life. There is another sort of sanctuary than those made of stone, concrete, steel, and wood. Remember, the church is about more than the building and the steeple – it’s really about the people.

There is a sanctuary within each of us called the heart. Of course, I’m not referring to that amazing, biological blood pump in your chest but the metaphysical place that enshrines our loves, dreams, hopes, and the subject(s) of our worship.

If you can envision such a place as a building. A building set aside from all other structures to focus on love, dreams, hope, and worship. Something like a church, chapel, synagogue, temple, mosque, or shrine. A sanctuary if you will in which all that you hold sacred is kept. Memories live there. Dreams are birthed there. Hopes are kindled there. Love is felt there. Sometimes, lesser things can invade too, but not today. What does the sanctuary of your heart look like? How is it shaped and built? What is adorned there? What is holy there? As you look about, do you see artwork? Perhaps the faces of those who’ve shaped your life into what it is through their example of their lives are looking down from a tapestry or sculpture or the frescoes on the ceiling. Who are they? Who are the saints that touched your life? Who lives on in the sacred space of your heart long after they’ve passed beyond your grasp?

That’s what today is about. The lives of those souls who helped in the building of our internal sanctuaries. Remember them. Love them. Look forward to the moment when we shall all be together again. And pick up your tools and help build the sanctuaries of others too. May our lives be worthy of adorning the hearts of those who follow our lives.

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