Churches creep me out. Coming from a Roman Catholic upbringing, this is not a conclusion that I arrived at lightly, because, you know, GUILT. The church, I learned at an early age, is GOD’S HOUSE, which I heard in the same booming, terrifying James Earl Jones voice that I imagined actually did belong to God. Who wants to be the jerk that disrespect’s GOD’S HOUSE? Not me, that was for damn sure. Besides, I had other things to worry about like this whole business about “sin” and how God seemed a whole lot like Santa Clause in that “he knows if you’ve been bad or good” super power.
As far as Roman Catholic churches go, the one I attended growing up was pretty modest. It was not overwhelming like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral, or every church in England. Those are the Gracelands of churches. Seriously, you know there’s a jungle room somewhere around those joints.
Ours was built in the usual, churchy style with tall, stained glass windows lining the sides featuring typical images—St. Francis with his animals, Mary in prayer, old, white men gazing unhappily up into the glittering glass leaves of trees. The requisite white dove rested in random panels as a reminder of God’s enduring sense of humor, “I’m going to flood the earth and wipe you out. Just kidding! A little…” It had big, wooden beams, a small balcony that housed a mid-sized organ, and standard rows of plain, uncomfortable pews.
The church of my childhood may have been GOD’S HOUSE, but it wasn’t home. I didn’t feel inspired or transformed sitting with an ache in my ass on those hard benches. I felt restless and penned in, which I suspect was by design. In these types of churches your inferiority is reflected back at you from so many unflattering angles: in the pained expression of the not one, but THREE different statues of crucified Jesus, in the portable broom closet that doubles for the penalty box where you cram yourself in to confess your sins to the priest. The box seems to shrink around you Alice and Wonderland style as your sweaty words and nervous shame flood into every nook and cranny.
During mass I would look around and notice people swaying slightly to the dirgy organ music, their eyes closed, a small smile playing over their lips. What did they know that I didn’t? This seemed really unfair to me. I was showing up to GOD’S HOUSE every damn Sunday like a good little guest, with my best intentions and only the smallest amount of malice in my heart towards my big brother whose list of offenses included “messing with my stuff” and “being a real turd sometimes,” and I could not feel less welcome, less at home in this house. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe I had missed a trick or spaced out during the part when they tell you how to unlock the love behind these high walls with their perfumed tapestries. Maybe I was broken. Sorry God, it’s not you, it’s me.
Without realizing it, as I got older, I started doing some comparison-shopping when it came to churches. I attended services with friends of different denominations and took in the simple, schoolhouse design of their meeting spaces; I went to Canterbury England and disappeared in the endless knaves and yards of stone and metal; I sought out the campus chapel, a word I associated with both Las Vegas and a feeling of coziness and intimacy, at the university where I attended grad school. It was a dark space with a lot of velvet, so perhaps more on the Vegas side of things than I had originally thought. I would duck in there before class, kneel, and try to wring spirit from the place, but mostly I ended up with stiff knees and a sleepy mind.
I thought maybe if I found the right house, I’d find God. Not belonging is a terrible feeling, it’s right up there with holiday bloat and first time heartbreak (or every time heartbreak). I looked at my housing options, as they were, and did the mature thing. I said: “Screw you God! You can keep your fancy windows and punishing benches. I don’t need this, I don’t need YOU!” In my mind this was quite spectacular and satisfying. In my mind I slammed out of the door and hopped in my boyfriend’s crappy Toyota Turcel and raced away into the cool, blue dusk. In my mind I was living an episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
It’s not an accident that God is smarter than us, more patient, that He’s willing to put up with our bullshit because, you know, GOD. He was happy to wait me out. He didn’t bother setting an extra place at the table for me on Sunday, and I stopped feeling guilty and hopeless about circling the block without getting out of the car.
There’s more to a house than four walls; there’s more to making a home than filling it with people and things. There’s more than one way to belong, to find fellowship and spirit. There’s more than one place where it all lives. Our job is to keep seeking until we find the source that speaks to us and follow it to wherever it is that feels like home. “There’s a crack in everything,” says Leonard Cohen, “that’s where the light gets through.” And that’s where I want to be.