Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Strange, Uncomfortable Church

My daughter, now on the East Coast with a new job, called this morning as we drove into Seattle. She had just gotten back from her new local church and she was missing the beauty and spirit of St. James Cathedral where we attend.

“Mother, enjoy it for me. There is just nothing like it in America,” she lamented. “Because no other church can live up to it, attending St. James is both a blessing and a curse.”

I thought about what she said--a blessing and a curse. Yes, St. James is a place of contrast, even contradiction. St. James is not an easy, comfortable church, it is wonderful because it is strange and uncomfortable.

It is located in Seattle’s downtown where the cool shadows of sky scrapers fall across a throng of avant-garde urbanites talking to their bluetooth headsets. They mindlessly stare like Night of the Living Dead zombies, gone vegetarian.

In contrast, St. James Cathedral’s two tall cream towers emerge to boldly protest the monotonous urban clamor that tries to convince us life is a sad, meaningless existence. The cathedral calls Seattle to gaze upward in hope to a great and gloriously unfathomable God yet who is working through the hands of unexceptional, humble men and women.

After parking, I pondered how the church not only clashes with our godless modernity, it contains opposing forces that would implode any human organization. Every sight and sound and smell reinforces my impression.

Walking towards the cathedral’s entrance, the church’s soup kitchen is bordered with dark, weathered faces, their bodies draped in layer upon layer of soiled clothing. In Spring and summer, the cathedral’s homeless shelter is empty and the residents are lying in the green grass lazily drinking their coffee. Their deep, mournful eyes fix on you with a stare that makes walking to church very uncomfortable.

As you pass between the church’s annex buildings towards the entrance, the stone walkway becomes a porthole in time fusing our culture with ancient Christianity’s. You can hear the choir’s haunting chants wafting out of their practice room into the white-gray corridor. In the courtyard a medieval looking statue of Mary calmly holding the baby Jesus sits in front of a fountain where bronze and silver coins glitter.

The immense entrance does not draw you in to take a comfortable seat. Its sculpted, bronze doors powerfully summon you to an epic adventure, to come in and worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The gray Seattle skies vanish as the door to the foyer shuts behind you and soft candlelight guides your way inside to the sanctuary. What is that smell? In the dark corner, there they are again as always, every day of the week, with their reeking, tattered backpacks sitting staring at you. St. James does not let you close your eyes to the desperate needs of humanity. Some are mentally ill, others are drug addicts. They are in the bathrooms and sitting in the back pews. You feel like you have invaded their home.

In the sanctuary sitting on the ridged hardwood chairs the smells turn delightful. In front of me, near the altar, are huge bouquets of White Oriental Lilies. The fragrance makes me close my eyes and breath in the dreamy perfume. Then an elderly gentleman with a walker shuffles in next to me and regularly propels a gurgling cigarette-cough into the congregation. That odor will be masked with the exotic fragrance swung across the worshippers in an incense burner to bless them.

There is a muffled tap-dance upon the marble floors as people quietly fill up the seats. Some Asian women with lace scarves draped on their heads kneel in prayer. A tall caucasian family in shorts and t-shirts are reverently lighting the candles in the side chapel. Near us is a Mexican family, and some people speaking Russian are directly behind us. For a moment all is silent except a distant echo of a baby crying in the back.

I gaze up to the ceiling as the organ in the East Apse begins its fiery prelude calling us to worship. The morning sun hits the blue and yellow stained-glassed windows and blazes across the gold Corinthian capitals atop the pillars. The organ’s sound soars through the high arches and is joined by a captivating medieval chant by St. James renown choir.

The bible is read, the cantor intones some verses from Psalms and we sing a response. Then the cycle is repeated again, just as the early church did. I feel two millennia of Christians on earth and in heaven all singing in rapturous unity to the King and Creator.

Suddenly my transcendent vision is broken by a mentally ill woman in an old dirty shawl loudly wandering towards the altar, apparently unaware of the service going on, hugging random people. She is stealthily surrounded and escorted to a seat by a group of nuns. The lady smiles broadly, utterly pleased at the attention. I notice that behind her stands a great statue of Christ with His outstretched arms tenderly framing the scene.

The sermon by Father Ryan is short and poignant. You must pay very close attention to hear because of the Cathedral’s reverberations. His kind and gentle manner does not water down the gospel to fit our modern lifestyles. He preaches what St. James himself would have preached. It is our ancient heritage and our responsibility as the church to preserve the authenticity of the spoken and written Word of God.

Catholic worship is active--no sitting comfortably for long. You stand to respond, then kneel to pray, only to stand again to sing and exchange the sign of peace and then kneel once again. There are prayers and prayers and prayers.
Last week a prayed was invoked that seemed to some to be calling us to vote for President O’bama’s Health Care Reform Bill. A congregant near me huffed with disgust, obviously not at all happy the prayer had political overtones. Later, he murmured all the way out about the liberals taking over. All this made me very uncomfortable.

This week that congregant is in the same place. He hands me a little book about the rosary with an insert about being happy in the midst of an unhappy world.

The priests then holds high the Bread of Heaven and as the bells ring out, he breaks the wafer in two as a reminder of Christ breaking His body for us. And yet, as we all stand up to go to the altar to take communion I feel a weirdness pour over me as I look at the people in line.

Liberals, homosexuals, kids with tattoos and lip rings, old people on walkers, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians, Scottish men in a kilts, blacks and whites each with their weaknesses and in different stages of sanctification, this diverse Kingdom of God, all moving towards Christ and drinking from the same communion cup. This can be the moment where a Christian is tested to the breaking point. It is difficult, strange, uncomfortable. I am realizing that church is not a place of refuge from the people of the world, a place one can disappear into a like-minded, well-dressed, sterile spirituality.

Each week I love St. James more, with its burgeoning contrasts of sights, smells, sounds. Medieval meets metropolitan, liberal meets conservative, pauper meet prince and sinner meets saint. Dichotomies which would only break us into comfortable divisions without the gift of Christ’s uncomfortable, strange grace.

Be sure to watch the music video