I am a spiritual person. I like to think I am, at least. Just this very morning, I was up at 6:30 and at church by 7:15 so that I could lead morning prayer and then serve as the acolyte at the 8 am mass. I wear a black robe with a white cotta and I feel proud when I am up at the altar helping with Holy Communion. My job today was to make sure everything was in place for the service, light the candles before the service, ring the bells during the service, bring up the bread and wine during Communion, then take them back to a side table afterward. I do a few other small tasks along the way, and each time I am serving, I work hard to remember what task is coming up so that I don’t “call attention to myself,” which is the only real rule I’ve heard during these several years of acolyte training. I like to remind myself that most churches have twelve-year-old boys doing what I’m doing, so if they can get it right, surely I can, too.
One might ask why I do all of this. If I have to go to church at all, wouldn’t it be more pleasant (and not quite so zealous) to simply sit in the pew and listen versus the active participation right up there next to the priest? After all, doesn’t that suggest a certain level of piety (or stupidity as some of my Texas friends might call it who are besieged daily by Christian fundamentalism) that is unseemly at the very least and downright nauseating at most? Or from a different tact: Who do I think I am anyway situating myself up there with the priest? Doesn’t that suggest that I am tooting my own horn or at least thinking I’m better than other people?
The truth is that though I am a long term Episcopalian, I have been, up until the last few years, a reluctant active participant. In the past, I felt much more comfortable gliding into church well after the service had started and sailing out immediately after it was finished, preferably avoiding any contact with anybody there. But, ironically, my husband – nonbeliever that he is – nailed me one Sunday (no tacky Christian pun intended, though my husband would appreciate my effort) by saying, “If you’re going to bother going, then why not at least get to know the people?” Of course, that had much more to do with him – extrovert that he is – wanting to get to know some LA folks than any effort on his part to get me active in church. But the upshot was that I reluctantly joined the choir. And from the choir, I was enlisted to help organize the coffee hour, and from the coffee hour, I was encouraged to run for the parish council, the vestry, and before I knew it, I was the senior warden (the head lay person) for the vestry. Since then, I’ve served a second term on the vestry and somewhere in there, someone recruited me as an acolyte. All of this, I’ve done reluctantly. No great sense of need on my part other than perhaps the desire not to disappoint people who thought I might be a good choice. But in the meantime, I have found my parish family. I am connected through action and relationship and philosophy to the people of St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood.
My new job has been to be thurifer – getting to swing the incense boat from a chain – and you would think that I was at the national cathedral the sense of joy I feel doing this job. Even being a torch – one of the handlers of the candles – summons up pride (I realize that’s one of the deadly sins, but this pride feels more like being proud rather than prideful). Not to mention, I love my fellow acolytes. They are a quiet and pensive group who feel the same level of love and affection for this work as I do. Are we up there because we feel superior or in need of a good horn tooting? No. We are up there (and I say “we” because I know this is the case for all the acolytes with whom I serve since we’ve talked about it) because we love the opportunity to be part of this spiritual practice. No more, no less.
One could equate this church behavior to being in a club, like Girl Scouts, where people wear uniforms and march around doing ritualized behavior. And on one level, I suppose, there is some connection. But the major difference is that my church activity is driven by my belief in a spiritual realm – things seen and unseen – and even though I like Girl Scout cookies, I don’t feel the same passion about serving that organization as I do at St. Thomas.
Is my faith unexamined? Am I just repeating what I saw growing up and going through the motions like a mindless mimic? I will admit to a childlike faith. I still have that – a sense of wonder when I hear words like, “and the power and the glory forever and ever.” What kind of magnitude are we talking about with that level of power and glory? But I did question all of this when I was younger. I dropped everything, didn’t participate, didn’t want to be part of a church community. Instead, I considered converting to Judaism, and then shifted and decided to explore the value of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. But somewhere in there, I made the conscious choice to return to my childhood faith because I felt the Spirit move me, and I do wholeheartedly believe in the Trinity, complete with that Holy Spirit. Not that I think Christianity is the only true faith. I believe that all faiths share the same basic tenets and traditions are important in whatever faith that may be. We are a big world and there is enough love for everybody.
So, what is next on this spiritual path? I don’t know. But, as you might imagine, I’m not worried. I believe that the path will open up before me as I proceed along the way. Or I could simply say, “I have faith.”