Where’s the Church?

Where’s the Church? August 1, 2019


More than a year ago now, I had a dream. And I don’t think that dream was some kind of vision from God, I think it was my bizarre mind trying to put into pictures what I’d been unable to put into words for years. Saints have visions. People like me dream that we’re trying to go on a tour in Pittsburgh and it keeps not working out.

I dreamed I was in Pittsburgh, because people who live in Steubenville consider Pittsburgh the epitome of sleek urban sophistication, and we are correct. If I could afford to live anywhere in the world, I’d buy a house in the Squirrel Hill district and take Rosie to Schenley Park every day. Perhaps I was in Schenley park in my dream– at any rate, I was in a park in Pittsburgh. I looked up across the street, and there was a church that put the Hagia Sophia to shame– a giant dome, iridescent, not just pearly gates but a pearl the size of a cathedral set in an ornate gold rectangle. A giant with hands the size of Schenley Park could wear this church for a ring and it would be a bit much. Perhaps he could set it as a seal on his arm.

Perhaps He already has.

My thoughts upon seeing this church were characteristically pious: “What denomination is it?” and “I hope they give guided tours of the inside.”

Next thing I knew, I was going in at the door.

I came in upon a frowzy little side chapel, decidedly Latin Catholic and post Vatican II, all blond wood and salmon-colored carpet. At the front of the chapel was a man with a big white bushy beard like Saint Nicholas, dressed in very Eastern Christian clerical garb and swinging a thurible, muttering prayers. I waited until he’d finished, and I asked him, “Where’s the church?”

He raised his eyebrows at me.

I walked out of the chapel, down a blond wood and pink-carpeted hall, and found myself in a walled cloister garden as big across as a city park. People were relaxing around it in lounge chairs, in shorts and sunglasses. It was crisscrossed by several winding brick paths, and at every junction of the paths was a strange abstract sculpture.

The sculptures turned out to be fountains.

There was no basin for the water to pour into, so it collected in the cloister garden like a splash pad– and then it flooded the garden, and I was up to my waist, and the people in lounge chairs were flooded up to their necks, still sitting there casually smiling in a crystal-clear and pleasantly cool lake. And then the water drained off again, and I asked one of the people, “Where’s the church?”

And they looked polite but confused.

I made a bee-line across the cloister garden to the opposite side, where I came upon an auditorium with icons displayed on easels on the stage. I asked a harried stage manager where the church was, and he gave me that same polite look.

Across the theater and in the next room was a corridor in a busy hospital, with a young nurse pacing authoritatively toward me in blue scrubs. “Where’s the church?” I asked, and she gazed at me.

The next thing I saw, conveniently enough, was an information desk, with a polite docent sitting there in a tweed pantsuit. I asked my question again. “Where’s the church? The sanctuary? The real church?”

She tried to look helpful, but she was bewildered; then a smile dawned on her face. “I think I know what you’re talking about!” she handed me a paper map.

The map was of this entire building complex. The pearl-shaped dome I had seen from a distance wasn’t specifically marked.

In my frustration I forgot to thank the lady at the desk. I just picked out one section of the map I hadn’t seen before and made a bee line for a room I hadn’t visited yet, back across the cloister garden with all the happy bathers in their chairs. And then I did find myself in something that looked like my idea of a church.

I once described hell as the  dark bottom of a grain silo with nothing else in it but me. This church was also silo-shaped, a cylinder several stories high, but it wasn’t dark. This church was bathed with golden light so thick you could drink it. The walls were tiled with icons all the way to the top. I got a good look at them because I was floating. Of course I was. All of us, even frumpy women who don’t even look graceful when we walk, occasionally  dream we’re able to fly. I was flying with no control over the direction I was going, swirling like a beetle caught upside-down in an eddy in a turbulent stream, never stopping in front of an icon long enough to do anything but pray “Help,” and then I was set down on the other side of the church by a side door, and could walk again.

The next room was a barn for animals.

Straight ahead of me was some kind of incubator with chicks and ducklings of every breed imaginable kept warm and safe under the lights; to the right of me was a pen full of plump white creatures that could have been sheep or pigs. My attention was distracted by the pen to the left. This pen held large, arrogant llamas and alpacas that looked ready to spit, and along with them were stalls full of unusually large billy goats with sharp horns.

An oblivious-looking family was walking among the pens on the goat side of the barn. I watched helplessly as a mother picked up her small child, and put him down inside the pen before that murderous-looking goat.

I woke up sad, even though it had been a beautiful dream.

People ask me why I stay Catholic instead of going somewhere else, as if my spiritual journey is a matter of worshiping in one church, reading one translation of the Bible and saying one formula of prayers instead of another.  I don’t see it that way.

To be what I am and on the journey that I am undertaking, is to see a Pearl of Great Price at a distance, and give up what you were doing to go looking for it. You don’t go looking with a good understanding of what it is because people don’t understand anything;  you usually go with selfish and silly motives, because people in general have selfish and silly motives. Perhaps you start your journey because it looks so beautiful and you’d like to take a tour. Next thing you know, you’re in it, and it doesn’t look the way you thought. It looks like everyday life, because the Pearl is everywhere present and filling all things, saturating all of Creation. Creation is beautiful, bountiful, mysterious, commonplace, alternately flooding and dry, and you find the Pearl in all of these things. Sometimes you find boring, aesthetically offensive churches and wonder if you’re in the right place. Sometimes you find people who insist the Church is an auditorium or a hospital for sinners, and they’re not wrong unless they think that that definition exhausts what the Church is. Once in awhile you reach that place where the Holy Ghost lifts the veil and shows you light thick as water, more beautiful than you can ever imagine, and then you fly.

Often enough you’re faced with the most evil things– not infiltrators from outside the Church as you’d expected, but right in here with you. Right here in the Church, here in the fold with the sheep, you will find the most arrogant people, the most violent people, the predators and abusers that people keep naively allowing to mind the children. That is real, it’s sickening, it turns the whole dream into a nightmare. I can’t stress enough that that is a real part of the Church. I have not been sexually abused by priests. But I have been spiritually abused by priests and religious in a number of different Catholic settings, and the pain is so terrible I often wish there were such a thing, for me, as being outside the Church. I am sure that for a huge number of people, that pain is a thousand times worse.

But as for me, I don’t see a way out of the Church.

I see my faith as my journey to find the Pearl– searching for her everywhere and finding her everywhere, rarely in the way I expected. Searching for Him and finding that He was with me all along. That journey is with me wherever I go. I suspect it covers the whole universe.

Another word for “universal” is “Catholic.”

(image via Pixabay) 



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