It started on the way home from work those quiet summer nights. I hid beneath my headphones, drowning the rancor out from the N train toward Brooklyn. I stared at the train map as it updated after each stop, hoping to finally get home to my family without reflecting on the innumerable doubts I had bearing down on my beleaguered mind.
What am I doing here on this train at 11 p.m.? Why am I here? Why is that panhandler shaking a can in my face, asking me for money? Why hasn't anybody blessed him in the same way I have been blessed?
I live in a neighborhood where the less fortunate sleep on the overnight train to nowhere, without a roof to rest under, only the dark night and wretched heat overwhelming them. They are often viewed as delusional and downright crazy when, in reality, they are simply less fortunate. Those who have been blessed, I learned, must sacrifice their gifts for those less fortunate, and pray that one day they too will be blessed.
At least, that's what I had told myself for 14 years. But on my train rides home, I pondered whether that claim embodied a universal truth — to help others, we have to give up what we have and pray for what they lack. I wondered whether my beliefs had once again taken control over my view of reality. Was I experiencing the consequence of 14 years in Catholic school engrained in my mind, or was this the product of my frequent questioning of His powers?
I needed to find out the answer the only way I knew how. I returned to the very sanctuary I once refused to enter alone, and knelt before the very Dude I once closed my eyes before and allowed him to consume my heart and soul. I came back for some answers.
Don't get me wrong, I love attending church. When I listen to the glorious harmony of individual voices from different places, young and old, singing the words of God, I fall under a deep spell. I let the words paralyze me and carry me through the next hour, listening to each syllable rejuvenate my outlook. I sang in the church choir in elementary and high school because I wanted that gracious feeling.
The feeling never escaped me, even in sorrowful times. In the spring of my senior year, just before graduation, a kid from my high school died suddenly from heart palpitations while trying to save a friend during a fight. As the choir stood together in the back of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church — the same church I had attended as a child — we watched our peer's coffin proceed down the aisle. His friends, some of whom stood with pride amid the choir, wept as the priest blessed his remains, their eyes red but looking forward. The procession stood in silence, staring at the coffin as the organ played in the background.
All I could hear was the mother's cries, echoing his name over and over again, louder than the organ could possibly be played.
Our conductor faced us, stared into our eyes and waved his baton. We puppets played for the court of spirituality, even when doubt shrouded our collective spirits.
Amid the cloudy emotions, though, I found warmth in song and forgot about death. At the time, however short it may have been, I appreciated the life he lived and the afterlife he soon faced.
So when questions arose this summer over whether life was for the blessed, I wanted to return to the same place I once knew. This time, I wanted to take someone along for the ride.
I asked my girlfriend, whose family came from a non-denominational background, if she wanted to partake. She had never been to a Catholic service, and wasn't sure she wanted to go every week. Though I had a fun time when she took me to her hometown church, I lost the profound emotional connection with the Dude. There was plenty of joyous singing, but I didn't feel as connected.
There, a full band, accompanied by two vocalists, played contemporary gospel music. Congregants swayed from side to side and clapped their hands to the upbeat music. After around a half hour of music, the pastor walked on stage to give his sermon.
I missed those fleeting moments when the organ blared in the background, leaving us to kneel before Him, pondering our lives for minutes on end.
We compromised. We had a mutual friend who frequently attends Lutheran services at Northwestern. She often said it was a small group of students and adults who attended Sunday services. It was low-key and not too far from my girlfriend's apartment, making Sunday-morning treks feasible.
Services started at 10:30 a.m. (awesome), but lasted an hour and a half (what?). At first I shuddered at the service length, but gave in. Though my reaction was slightly theatrical, I smiled. It was about time I faced the son of God on His cross, looking down on me.
When we arrived at University Lutheran Church (ULC) our first Sunday morning, He wasn't there. A blank cross hovered over the small congregation, as a female pastor presided over her congregants. To say I was shocked about the idea of a female pastor is an understatement. You see, the Catholic Church disallows women from becoming priests, so the sight of her presiding over such a sacred period slightly shook me. I had learned that every Father Whomever was a messenger from God, and that we were all created in His image and likeness. The concept of gender separation never crossed my mind when it came to worship proceedings. Rather, it was a sight unseen and unspoken, an aberration that I respected but never anticipated.
Well, this is starting off well, I said.
Upon entering, I spoke with a few friends I knew from other activities, and chatted about everything aside from the impending service. It turned out the pastor was stepping into shoes she couldn't possibly fill. The former pastor, Lloyd Kittlaus, retired after 31 years of service to ULC. His impact on the Lutheran community was palpable. Every so often, I heard his name come up in one way or another, as if he were some lingering spirit who departed without a trace. No one, it seemed, could beat Pastor Lloyd.
While the small crew of students searched for an interim pastor, the female pastor took his place. She greeted us with a smile and gestured toward the room where service took place. About seven rows of white chairs filled half the space, each seat bearing a service sheet and a red hymnal. I watched her greet each person before they entered the room. It reminded me of the moments just before mass begins, when you make friends with your neighbors based on where you sit.
Eager anticipation of the first major key striking the organ from above sped my heart like a sprinter's first jump, racing for a few seconds before I settled into a flow. I sat in my seat, my knees shaking. I flipped through the readings and waited for the organ to strike its first note.
It never came. Instead, the pastor started reading from the pamphlet similar words to what I once knew. Not exactly, but it was reassuring. When the first hymn commenced, I tried to sing. The words would not come out. I cleared my throat, but still the incoherent mumbles spilled from my lips. I could barely sing.
The hymns were distinct and lively, leaving my readjustment to singing void and stumbling.
As the service continued, though, some reassuring feeling once lost to me returned. The tenor in the church choir sang loudly. My voice rejuvenated. The seemingly joyful hymns became pleasant moments of self-reflection and reverence to the Dude. The doubts I had had before dissipated. All that remained were me, Him and the gracious music flowing pleasantly in the background.
It seemed, at least for the next hour and a half, that I warmed to the idea of another Christian denomination being my home. Though the communion procession was particularly strange to me (it honestly felt like I was being hazed before the Cross, holding a small shot glass and kneeling while the pastor poured wine into it), the music enveloped me. I struggled with the unfamiliar melodies, but relished in the moment where, despite the small group, I felt alone, enraptured.
It was just the Dude and I singing to each other, listening as our concerns touched one another.
He still wasn't present in the room, though, and I missed that. Besides that, the idea that a Catholic could go into a Lutheran church and not critique the stark differences makes me think something happened that Sunday morning. I joked with my girlfriend on the stroll back to her apartment, saying the songs were different, communion was different and the pastor was slightly political.
But she noticed something. When we read the Apostles' Creed as a congregation, I closed my book and recited the words from memory. She nudged my elbow, but I continued as if in a trance.
It started as a desire to feel whole again, but has since been an enlightening peek into the profound and innumerable tunnels within my heart.
Being faithful isn't necessarily about being Catholic, but rather, it is about accepting that which seems foreign to you, even at times when doubt shrouds your perception.
Though the Dude wasn't present in the small room, He was there watching over us from behind a stained glassed window, waiting to placate my doubts. In that stroll home, I may have found my answer.
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