Growing up Episcopalian, I understood pageantry and pretend.
The church sanctuary and the liturgy were familiar backdrops where I learned about beautiful music and poetry and drama.
To a child, the stained glass chancel was like a stage adorned with ornate props. When parishioners weren’t around, I used to pose behind the scary eagle lectern, and hide underneath the altar. My father, in his gorgeous vestments, was the lead in a marvelous spectacle, that much was clear. There were costumes, and even scripted lines.
And behind the scenes, in the sacristy, getting dressed in the long chasuble, with the stole and cincture (rope belt), he assumed a leading role. When he got ready, in that tiny anteroom, he reminded me a little bit of the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz.
And at age six or seven, The Wizard of Oz and the The Holy Eucharist service, were equally two of my very favorite things.
Fairytales and religion, they had so much in common. All things were possible in those fantastic worlds.
I loved to go with my dad on his visits into people’s homes to administer Holy Communion. He had a miniature traveling case, a box lined with blue velvet, that held the silver paten and chalice, and a linen napkin embroidered with a tiny, delicate cross. A little bit like an expensive tea party set.
It was exciting watching him set everything up at the bedside, his demeanor always just the perfect combination of congenial, but still formal. And while he administered communion, I would study his face, to see if he really believed the words he was saying.
Because, up-close, I knew you couldn’t lie. I could see that in the huge sanctuary (like on stage) you could make big movements, swoop your arms, even sing solo, and to the congregation in the pews the drama looked impressive.
But from there, you couldn’t see the facial details, and I was obsessed with those – with their authenticity.
In the front pew, I would watch people’s expressions, as they got up off of their knees after communion and walked back to the pew. Were they contrite, or were they faking? And, if not, what could their sins?
And I remember kneeling, with hands steepled, and peeking sideways at my twin sisters, to see which of us was the most pious.
But what I witnessed, tagging along to the shut-in visits with my father, when he would place the tiny wafer in someone’s hand, and raise the chalice to the lips, it was the real deal.
Often I would stage my own communion services in my bedroom, complete with candles and grape juice and whatever Wonder Bread or cookies I could snatch from the kitchen. I knew the words by heart: Take, eat, this is the body that was given for you. And I would feed myself lots of the holy food and drink, and bless myself, and then go about playing with my Barbies.
To me, the words from the prayer-book were no different from the other books in my bookshelf. The phrases sounded beautiful in a lyrical, old-fashioned way. The strangely worded prayers came off of the tongue with surprising ease.
The liturgy had a wonderful storytelling quality that invited me in and I felt at home in it. And so I was completely comfortable being a child priest. God had perfectly cast me, front and center stage.
I’m thinking about these old memories because we are now in the season of Lent. My sister reminded me the other day. And even though I no longer give myself the sacraments, or even go to church, the religious calendar is still imprinted on me.
… we beseech thee to accept
this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits,
but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I remember the words beckoning me to look inward, to listen, to examine my small world. And it felt so personal, so intimate – the only time in the church year that felt like that to me.
For forty days I could write the script, play my part, and decide how to evaluate myself at the end. It wasn’t about suffering. It wasn’t a punishing exercise where I was supposed to give up worldly pleasures. Lent was a challenge, a huge question, an invitation to a dialogue.
A conversation with myself, to look over my thoughts, my deeds, my spiritual status. But it was also a time to erase the page, to re-write and adjust. And, like all fairy tales, there was a promise of transformation.
I think prayer is a myriad of things, I can’t even begin to say how many ways there might be to pray. But maybe one way is simply to have a conversation.
Over the years, my mom and I talked a lot about life after death. Like most of us, she struggled to understand what would happen to her body when she died. And when she shared her fears with me, I always felt so incredibly close to her. Her openness and vulnerability connected me to her in those moments. I knew she was anxious, but I didn’t know how to help.
Because I was more afraid than she was.
Her uncertainty always surprised me. She was usually so confident in her beliefs and opinions. In everything she did, she was self-assured. Her strong faith in God seemed unwavering, and somehow tied to her incredible energy. She was always on the move, like a centrifuge of purpose and faith, spinning through her busy days.
She was like prayer in motion.
And now her body is gone, and I miss talking with her. And sometimes I think about prayer, what it is, and whether it might connect me to her.
Because I think that’s what I was doing in my bedroom church, all those years ago. Carefully filling the tiny sherry glass with juice, holding up two fingers to bless the table, I was questioning. I was adjusting my small spiritual life.
It was pretend, it was play-acting, but the questions were devout. I wanted to understand the resurrection.
The word sacrament, translated from the ancient Greek, means “mystery.” As a child, I understood it, and I believe it even more now. Everything is a mystery – the bread, the wine, my mother’s body. And the forty days of Lent – they mark time in a relationship that I know is always present, but is also something that can be lost.
Yesterday, it was miserable weather in Zürich – the deep snow was melting and an icy rain showed no sign of letting up. To avoid the mud, I took a run in the city, at a school track.
And with each lap, I felt my muscles loosen and my body relax into the curve of the turf. And I laboriously counted each time around, like beads on a rosary. And after a mile, I let my mind empty. And I felt the flooding ache of grief, and I wanted to just run away from it.
But instead, I let the pain run with me, and I just kept going.
Like walking a labyrinth, or following a trail in the woods, or murmuring a poem by heart, it was a reflexive action. And, after a while, I began to feel my heart open, and the pain move over to the side of my ribcage.
And what was left was a clean, hollow space – empty and poised to listen.
And after a while, it started to feel a little bit like praying.