My children’s Michigan fact book says you can’t go more than eight miles without hitting water in this state, but it must be less this far north. I imagine the land shifting and disappearing beneath my feet as it does at the shoreline, except I’m standing in my kitchen.
“You’re basically living on a big dune,” a woman says when I mention my back pain. I thought I’d pulled something lifting moving boxes, but she says transplants often complain of chronic pain. We go rigid trying to find our sea legs.
Today I imagine the strain in my back isn’t from bracing myself against water but from shouldering a cross in the form of a giant clock, the old-fashioned kind that ticks loudly all night until it sounds a shattering alarm. I want to carry it into the woods and leave it, take it to the lake and sink it, to float home weightless and free from an unhealthy obsession with time, from circling thoughts of finitude that have kept me awake since before my mother died young. They never leave, not even with my lips against the warm cheek of a toddler so full of life he can barely stand still for a kiss.
These are the thoughts that drive me to the page, and they used to drive me to the pews too, where I could escape for a moment into that ethereal world of hot wax and flickering light and melt into years of other people’s faith in a place where death has no sting. But the churches up here don’t seem any more set apart from the flow of time than their social halls do. They smell of musty carpet and HVAC systems and food.
A couple of weeks ago a parish priest thoroughly shocked and horrified me when he described stained glass and art—both lacking here—as distractions. My dear man, my inner Chesterton bristled, that’s exactly why I’m here.
So instead of the pews, I find myself in the woods, searching for a place that is ancient and undisturbed. This, northern Michigan has in abundance. I walk fast, headed nowhere, but trying to shake that devil time from my trail, looking for God shining in a break in the trees, on a bluff or a dune that gives way to a glassy lake like a portal to another world.
In Chicago for All Saints Day we visit St. Gregory’s in Andersonville. I want to take a picture at the Pietà, a shrine to the Mother of Sorrows, but another woman approaches before me and I back away to give her space. She lights her candle and reaches for Jesus’ cold, slack hand, the hand of a dead man cradled in his helpless mother’s arms. She gives it a calm maternal squeeze, as if she’s the one comforting him.
I take pictures of the shrine with my phone. It feels unseemly but I need a souvenir to remind me that there are still places like this in the church, not just in my books about the church. I light my candle and let my sorrow flicker there with all the others, release it like a fish in the water.
There are several people there, kneeling in silence, and I feel awkward shouldering my way in with my heavy bag, full of extra clothes and Star Wars toys and a half-eaten banana. I sit and listen to my loud breath mingling with theirs. This is not St Gregory’s, where all that intricately carved wood will never not smell like incense and tears, where you kneel in the shadow of two towering sinewy archangels bowing before a gaunt crucified Christ.
This chapel is not beautiful. Really, it’s almost offensive to me, with that mass-produced Divine Mercy tapestry with the laser beams shooting from the heart of Jesus, the slogan “I trust in you” in script across the bottom, and that white noise machine on the wooden table in the corner is just a little too mundane a reminder of my own bedroom. But to be an art-loving, art-making Catholic today is to struggle against the worst of the banal, the ugly, the artless every single Sunday and then some, to plug your ears and put out your eyes and feel blindly for the altar.
Because they say God is there. I say he’s there. And the brass monstrance on that awful tapestry holds all of heaven, every soul who ever lived, every moment of experience, every beloved breath or soft patch of skin, hidden not in a bottle of Dandelion wine but in a wafer of bread.
There is no more seductive promise to me than this Eucharist, the only real shot I’ve got at leaving my sworn enemy time behind, at least for fifteen minutes until I pick up my son from the preschool around the corner. So I can’t quit this church, even if she stubbornly abandons or forgets all the other ways she offered escape from the relentless grind of the everyday that wears all things down to dust.
If I loved God better, I fear, I wouldn’t need those transcendent chants, the dead language, the stained glass that obscures the present tense with stories from the swirl of history and the promised, longed for future. But my starved (or is it overfed?) imagination needs help to conceive of a world and a love that is both like what we know and far greater, everlasting.
Without the Eucharist, I’d be left to my books, lost in the woods, searching the cedar cathedral for a place where I can read God’s language again.
Originally published in Good Letters on November 25, 2013.
Jessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published essayist and the author of the memoir Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, winner of the Christopher Award. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, writer David Griffith, and their two children.