A friendly hand fell lightly upon my shoulder one January morning several years ago, as I was spending a few extra minutes before the tabernacle, after finishing Morning Prayer. I was running behind schedule that day, but since at least the beginning of the new school year, my old friend had also apparently been coming to the church quite a bit later than she used to, because it seemed to have been the better part of a year since we’d seen each other. I’d wondered about her now and again over the previous few months – wondering if her health were intact, even wondering if she had passed on to heavenly glory while I’d been away over the summer…
I would go into the church to pray most mornings after dropping my girls off at the neighboring parish school, and my friend used to be there almost every morning, in very early anticipation of the 9:00 daily Mass. Usually, she’d come in after me – into the side room where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved – walking with short but determined steps, to stand before the tabernacle: head bowed, right hand extended above her shoulder to gently touch the face of the ark, paying homage to her Lord. But she would never fail to stop and greet me with a friendly smile and a twinkling eye on her way by – unless she’d gotten there before me, in which case she would wave to me energetically from her pew in the middle of the nave, if she saw me come in.
My favorite days were those times I was late, and she didn’t notice me come in. On those days, thinking she was all alone in the church, she would sometimes break out into song, lifting her shaky voice loudly to heaven in obvious gratitude for all the love, grace, and kindness she has been blessed to experience in her life.
And I’d think: if only I could pray like that… On those special mornings, I’d always be sure to catch her eye and give her a big smile on my way out.
The reason I was taking my time that morning was to read a bit from the writings of Saint Francis de Sales, whose feast day it was. In the second section of Part One of “Introduction the the Devout Life”we read:
[T]he world vilifies holy devotion as much as it can. It pictures devout persons as having discontented, gloomy, sullen faces, and claims that devotion brings on depression and unbearable moods. But just as Joshua and Caleb held both that the promised land was good and beautiful, and that its possession would be sweet and agreeable (c.f. Num 13.33-34), so too the Holy Spirit, by the mouths of all the saints, and our Lord by his own mouth (c.f. Mt 11.28-30), assure us that a devout life is a life that is sweet, happy, and lovable.
In our day, no less than in Francis’, the devout are popularly portrayed as somehow missing out on the fun, but the devotion of this old woman clearly reveals a deep satisfaction with the substance of her life – warts and all – which is nurtured in her routine, morning after morning. As she turned from the tabernacle that morning to walk back into the nave, my friend stopped to stoop down and pick up a stick match off the floor. Then she spotted another one next to where I was sitting, and she picked that up as well. She muttered some kind of guess as to how they might have ended up on the rug, then she said: “Now, we can’t have the church burning down, can we? We need it.”
It struck me immediately just how right she was, although earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have really understood her. I recall thinking at the time about the various pockets of local people occupying churches in protest against pastoral decisions to close them, and although I certainly think these folks were missing pretty much the whole point of “church” in their stubborn protestations, I think many of them were also genuinely afraid of losing something precious – not nearly as precious as the salvific fellowship of being joined to the Body of Christ, but precious nonetheless. It’s more than memories. Churches are places where our faith is transformed from the lonely struggle to be personally open to God, into the victorious unity of the communion that actually is itself our promised glorious future in nascent form.
Church is the place where – even more so than anywhere else – we can never be truly alone. Even when we think we’re all alone in a church, warbling at the top of our lungs, there is somebody appreciative standing before the Lord in rapt attention, with a big smile on his face, listening to us. Where else can we experience life like this, in our drive-thru world of screen names and Social Security numbers? Where else can we divest ourselves of the cloud of anonymous networked resources and information streams, to bask in the familiar, quiet strength of the great cloud of witnesses, and the musty, sensual reminders of generations that sacrificed faithfully that we might be here to remember? It’s tempting to consider ourselves too spiritual to really need church buildings, to live like spiritual nomads who can be home wherever our feet take us, but we are a cultivating people at heart, and churches are where Christian community – and a satisfaction known only to shared devotion – is cultivated.
I more or less stopped making that morning drive to the neighboring parish school a couple years ago, when school carpools and other scheduling disruptions changed the substance of the household morning routine. But as my youngest daughter was completing her last days at the school a couple weeks ago, I wanted to circle back and close the loop, so to speak, regarding the heritage of prayerful encounter I’d had the privilege to experience before the tabernacle, morning after morning, for more than seven years. And I wanted to see my sweet, happy, and lovable friend one last time, to say good-bye. So I created opportunities to attend a couple of the 9:00 Masses over there in hopes of seeing her, and I made a point to drive over on the final morning of classes to recite Lauds before the tabernacle one last time, but I never saw my friend.
I don’t know where she is now, but I’m sure she’s singing still. Her devotion was her vow to radiate joy in the world through a life of genuine gratitude for whatever it was that constituted her daily bread, and I am profoundly grateful for the satisfaction of having shared in that joy in some small way, as, each in our own way, we shared that prayer space together before the Lord, day after day.