I watched a few different church services on livestream this weekend.
I still can’t stand to go to a church in person, but I wanted to do something for a Sunday. So I tuned in.
I turned on a livestream of a Catholic Mass to see how it felt. It didn’t feel good. There wasn’t anything wrong with the parish I was watching; it just felt unsafe because of what I’ve been through. I couldn’t quite get through the whole Mass. I shut it off after the Liturgy of the Word. I couldn’t stand to watch the Eucharist. I don’t want to face Him just now.
Later I watched a livestream of a different Sunday service. This was from a church some of my friends go to on the south side of Columbus, a social justice Protestant type of church, the kind I would never have called a “real church” growing up. Real churches have steeples or onion domes. Real churches have pipe organs and stained glass. I went to the most perfect, beautiful, pristine real church for many years, a church with a communion rail and a towering altarpiece and the best choir you ever heard. I sang alto and sometimes mezzo. We performed Victoria’s Tenebrae on Good Friday, and it made the congregation’s hair stand on end. We performed Lessons and Carols the week before Christmas and people said they felt like they should be charged admission. We practiced ahead of time for months.
This was not that kind of church. This was a room about as aesthetic as a shoebox, with metal chairs and a projector. There were guitars and percussion, some lady with a tambourine. I thought I would be sickened with a tambourine, after suffering religious trauma from the Charismatic Renewal. But it didn’t feel bad.
Our beautiful, beautiful church growing up had a policeman outside during liturgies to guard us from danger, and doors that carefully locked from the inside in case of drifters. If you were late for choir practice, you had to knock hard and pray somebody heard you, or you’d be on the doorstep for the full hour. This wasn’t that kind of church. This is a church that is locally known for letting anyone in: the poor, the homeless, addicts, they all worship together. It has its own food pantry and clothing giveaway, a sliding scale medical center and a job training program.
My parish growing up once did a huge fundraising campaign and went millions into debt anyway, to build us a social hall as gorgeous as the hundred-year-old church itself. This building looked cheap but they’ve invested literal millions in affordable housing in a nearby neighborhood where there used to be slum apartments and boarded up derelicts.
I’m not making a point about Catholic parishes compared with Protestant ones in general, you understand. I’m just comparing the parish I knew with this particular church.
The music at this church didn’t sound very professional. But everyone was singing along with gusto. They weren’t listening to the choir and feeling like they should be paying admission. They were singing.
At one point they all stood up and performed a song with some silly hand motions– everyone, children and adults, the elderly, waving their hands to act out the song. Then there was a man who wasn’t in an alb or a clerical garment of any kind, but I think he was the pastor; he said “We’re going to do something different, we’re going to sing what’s called a RESPONSORIAL PSALM.” And he led the people through your standard chanting of a psalm, with that same guitar and drum in the background. My Tenebrae Schola would have scoffed.
I think there were Prayers of the Faithful after that, but they called it something else. Then there was another song. There was the lady with the tambourine, now in a choir robe, and another lady in a choir robe holding her baby on one hip, another person in a cowboy hat with a robe on, somebody passing around a microphone so they could each belt out a solo. They swayed and shook back and forth in a way that would make a choir director crazy.
It was sublimely beautiful.
It was numinous, not in the way I’d grown up with, not in the sense of people following every single rule to do exactly what they ought to create a certain aesthetic that reminds one of God. It was numinous, Godly, in the sense of the God Who played across the waters of chaos at the beginning of time. It was Godly in the sense of Saul and the Prophets cascading down the mountain and prophesying as they went. It was Godly, in the sense of a God Who deliberately chose to become a Child, so that nobody who is childish or childlike or helpless like a child– that is. none of us, because we are all children– should ever be ashamed.
I think there was probably a sermon after that, and I assume a communion service last of all, but I turned it off. I didn’t want to see the communion service. I don’t want to face Him just now.
I don’t think I want to join that particular denomination. What I wish with all my heart is to heal enough that I could go back to liturgies– not just prayer meetings but liturgies, sacraments, what my dear friend Holly the Witch once called “the magic.” Water that brings a blessing. Oil that bestows an eternal seal. Physical objects, bread and wine transforming into spiritual Food. A proper chant for every day of the liturgical year. But what I want most of all is Christ.
I think that, when everything that is hidden is revealed, some physically ornate churches will be revealed to be terribly cheap.
I think that shoebox of a church will shine like the sun.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy