Sunday, September 2, 2012

a visit to church(!)

I keep starting posts and then not finding the time/energy/focus to finish them the way I'd like. As part of my Zen practice *cough* or something, you can look forward to the publishing of much somewhat-finished writing that starts out really promising and then has bad endings! You lucky devil.

I went to church today, which happens at least every couple years for one reason or another. I mean going to an ordinary church service outside of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Usually this has to do with my friend M, who has been leading the singing at various services for quite some time, first in his native Catholicism, and then at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and today he was the cantor at his new home church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.

(I got drafted into the choir, which is apparently what happens when you show up early as a newcomer and look wistfully as the choir warms up. "Are you a choral singer?" "Yes." "Want to join us?" It's fun having semi-professional-level skills.)

I've been meaning for years to visit St. Gregory's, ever since I read Sara Miles's conversion-and-food-pantry story, Take This Bread. The book itself comes and goes in quality--sometimes it's a little self-involved--but the spirit of St. Gregory's comes through unmistakeably, and parishioners told me they do get random visitors from around the world because of the book. Sara Miles gave the sermon this morning, actually, so that was pretty cool. I could have met her but didn't: authors being complete strangers like anyone else, I don't think we have anything in common to talk about.

St. Gregory's is Episcopalian only in name and origin. M says it started as a mission church of San Francisco's Trinity Episcopal, but I grew up Episcopalian and I can safely say there is nothing Episcopalian about how they do services. I'd be surprised if you found more than one copy of the standard hymnal or prayer book in there.

It's an astonishing place, and well worth a visit. Ethiopian crosses abound (yeah, I wouldn't recognize one either), the English writing on the walls has Greek translation, and Eastern Orthodox-style iconography abounds, to the point where they have icon-painting workshops on weekends. (Making icons is a complex, disciplined meditative practice, following strict rules of symbology and technique. You knew that, of course. Though I suspect maybe they use paint-by-numbers.)

They generally aim for a sort of closer-to-the-original Christianity, with its egalitarianism and universal participation. Everyone starts together in the rotunda with some singing, then processes into the rectangular section with the chairs, where the majority of the service happens: readings and a sermon followed each by a series of Zen-style Japanese bells meditative silence, more singing, a time when people can speak if they're so moved. Then everyone processes back to the rotunda, using a special step: right-left-right, left-step-back. More singing, drums, clinking things (kids were recruited for this part), liturgical bits from the priests. The Communion bread plates and wine cups go out, and everyone just passes them around to the next person. Then there's a short acknowledgement of the Eucharist, and then it just sort of ends and flows into everyone talking and hugging and saying hello. No "Go forth into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord", which is one of my favorite traditional bits, and no ending procession. As an attempt to get back to Christianity's first couple centuries, it's pretty awesome.

Will I go back? Who knows? I imagine so. I liked it. On the other hand, it's not clear that Christianity speaks to me now much more than it did when I was a kid. Partly, they didn't exactly teach Sunday school for the kind of kid I was. Unsurprisingly, the very kind and loving teachers didn't have a satisfying answer to "What is a soul, exactly?"; and if they knew how to make the Bible and the faith intellectually coherent, they weren't sharing the secret with me. Any vaguely inquisitive and literate child can see that the God of the Old Testament was a murderous psychopath; people have been trying to make sense of that for the past 2,000 years, and it seems like there could be a pretty in-depth Theology For Kids class that would do everyone some good.

It's possible I wasn't normal.

Anyway, I know my own way. I'm sure I'll make it back to St. Gregory's occasionally. I highly recommend it if you're anywhere nearby. There's nothing like it.

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