I love to get in the car and drive.
I could go for miles, sit for days behind the wheel. Taking in the sights and sounds and smells of little towns and hamlets, big city worries in my rear view mirror. It’s a form of therapy that only cost me as much as the fuel to gas up my car.
I had received an invitation by a preacher in a church 30 miles away from my city home. She wanted me to listen to her preach the Gospel for Palm Sunday. She had discovered several of my essays and felt a particular connection with a few of my pieces. She asked would I give her permission to use various passages in the context of her homily? Her lenten message and prelude to the most holiest of weeks in the catholic faith, the Triuudium, the week before Easter. She felt my words would connect with her congregation.
I was thrilled beyond words that she wanted to quote me. I was honored and jumped at the chance to drive out to her little country church, thirty miles from my safe haven and from the people I knew. It combined two of my favorite things to do. The aforementioned driving and another hobby of sorts. Checking out other churches and faiths other than my own.
I look at other faiths from time to time just out of curiosity. It’s not a time for comparison or one upmanship or to see which faith is “better.” I view it, rather, as a new way to visit with God.
The other part of the fun is checking out other catholic churches purely for architectural and aesthetic reasons. I like to see how other communities “do it”, as opposed to my own continuity. Again, not to compare, but to enjoy. I like to look at the various icons that particular community has chosen for worship and how they have adorned the altar, positioned the statues.
Someone used to tell me I could smell a Catholic Church ten miles away. They were amazed I could find these little sanctuaries set far back or in out of the way places, apart from main streets or highways. If they knew what my “secret” was, they would feel foolish indeed.
It’s simple. Churches usually have a giant cross erected atop the highest steeple of the building. They were put there for a reason; for the faithful to be able to find it. All one needs to do is look to the horizon and you will see it. It will call to you and lead you towards it.
After filling the car up with gas, checking the road map and filling my thermos with coffee, I drove off to the highway to begin my trek. It was a beautiful, sunny, Spring morning, the first after a long, dark winter. It was 9:00 a.m. and the mass I wanted to attend didn’t start until 11:30 a.m. Plenty of time to get lost in the journey and take in the aura of another place, where I envisioned time would be slower, roadways kinder, and space expansive.
I didn’t know what to expect, unaware of what I would find.
Little did I know my journey would lead me to a place of peace and great joy.
Little did I know, I was heading home.
I had arrived at the little church earlier than I expected.
Traffic was light and I had not gotten as lost as I thought I might, only making two wrong turns in the process.
Some street signs were missing, but I realized quickly the residents didn’t need the markers to take them on their frequent travels down familiar streets. They were on autopilot, unlike me, who have been lost most of the time.
I had taken a wrong turn somewhere and was in the middle of a field, with only some cows, ducks and two sheep to ask for directions. Not only was I no longer in Kansas, Dorothy, I was somewhere East of the Rockies.
Like my prayer so many times before, I asked God to please, set me on the right path.
This time I really need the right road to get to where I need to go.
My soul was calling to that little church, and to see the woman preacher who had felt the connection with my words to proclaim to her parishioners. It wasn’t enough for her to tell me she was doing it. I had to hear it for myself.
I backtracked a few miles and came to a fork in the road.
All roadways unmarked, I took the chance and turned left.
Success! I had found the connecting roadway and continued on. Going a few more miles and feeling I was getting closer to my destination, my eyes began to scan the horizon before me, looking for the tell tale cross.
My eyes found the crucifix to the east, a turn off from the highway. I stayed on the road, adjusting the radio, as the music was fading away. Within minutes, I was lost again, ending up on a dirt road.
What is it, Lord? What are you trying to tell me?
Why I didn’t just give up and go home, I’ll never know. But I turned around, and found the right road again by looking for the cross.
Down steep hills and brown fields, for the rains had not yet fed the greenery, I ventured further down to a small clearing, where I would clearly see the white of the steeple.
I had found the church. Or had it found me?
It was nearly 10:30 a.m., an hour before the start of Mass. I pulled into the gravel parking lot, empty at this early hour. I drove to the furthest part of the lot and backed in. Turning the engine off, I sat back in my seat, unfastening my seat belt as I looked around me.
What a peaceful and sweet place, I thought. This was truly a respite for someone accustomed to the daily grind of doing the things that needed to be done. A woodpecker worked away on the tree behind me, his schizophrenic taptaptaptaptap a relaxing rhythm. I thought about the residents here and what led them to live here. How had they found it? It reminded me of the church I attended when I was a child.
The bells in the steeple began to toll the hour. Eleven o’clock, already?
A few cars began to pull into the parking lot, those obviously connected with the service.
A woman driving a Range Rover parked a few spaces over from me and smiled, her eyes questioning what are you doing here?
As she got out, she unloaded her equipment, a guitar and a canvas bag, marked with a G clef on one side, and sheet music on the other. Clearly, she was the church musician. Focused, but in no particular hurry, her determination to begin her task was not slowed by noticing the blonde woman in the car. She probably thought I was a city slicker, a refugee who had ended up on the wrong path and ended up in an unknown town.
For I immediately surmised I was overdressed, and would look ostentatious with my blue suit, matching pumps and handbag. I would stick out like a sore thumb, taking the attention off the task at hand and putting it on myself, had I gotten out of the car. The church was small, and would groan to hold 60 people. This was a place that did not boast of material possessions. It didn’t look like a struggling, poor city church. But they did not flaunt anything here. Just filled the building to the brim. Like when I was a kid.
“The service doesn’t start until 11:30” she said, not looking directly at me.
“Thank you. ” I answered, smiling as humbly as I could behind the visor.
“I wasn’t quite sure where this church was, so I came a little early. I’d like to sit out here for a while, if that’s ok.”
“Sure” she answered sweetly, finally meeting my gaze. “I just wanted you to know that.” With that, she went inside.
11:15 a.m. and the cars were beginning to arrive all at once, as if on cue and a gateway had been opened. They pulled into the gravel parking lot, filling in their predestined spaces, no white lines needed here. They glanced briefly my way, for this was a car that usually wasn’t there. I was probably parked in someone’s “space.” There was an air of mystery beginning to develop and I decided I like the anonymity, enjoying the feeling of being a stranger in a new land, my own Jerusalem.
I began to hear faint singing in the background, traditional old hymns sung on this day, Palm Sunday, the time of the Passion readings. The parishioners had gathered outside to begin the procession into the church, after having received a palm which had just been blessed. It had begun.
Mothers and fathers with young children, young newlyweds, and grandparents stood in line, awaiting to process in. I was frozen in my seat, for suddenly I felt so out of place, so disconnected from the people in the church, I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get out of the car.
I watched as the Priest and a woman dressed in red led the congregation into the little church. I surmised she was the preacher who had invited me, but now was not the time to chat or small talk, or thanking her for inviting me.
I sat a few minutes more in the car, timing the space between the opening prayer and the readings. The reading of the Passion was long on this Sunday, as it is every year, and I knew I would have a little time to sit before the Preacher would begin her homily.
I walked up to the front door and realized I would not be able go in and sit down. The people were standing, every pew full, and the closest I could get was to the vestibule. The doors were closed and I could see her face through the little window in either swinging door that led inside. But I could hear her strong, clear voice, as if I was standing next to her.
In the beginning, she didn’t see me. She read her homily, pausing at the places she wanted to make a point. She had begun by smiling and asking the question “Where do we go with this story?” and added her own interpretations.
When it came time to quote my words, she glimpsed my face in the window, our eyes locking for a brief moment. If she realized who I was, her face didn’t show it, never stopping to proclaim my belief to the congregation and confirm everything I had written.
She understood what I was saying. She understood my passion about the Passion.
What a wonderful gift she had given me. As she read my name, tears gathered in my eyes. I began to feel the peace and the warmth I had felt when I first pulled into the gravel parking lot, remembering the church of my youth. I have come home, I thought. I am home.
As soon as she finished, I turned to leave. Still not realizing she had spied me, she walked through the swinging doors to find me turning the corner to head towards my car.
“Eileen?” She asked in a faint voice, as Mass was continuing, the communion rites being read.
I turned to face her and my smile was from east to west. “Thank you” I said, as I hugged her. “Thank you for sharing my heart.”
“Thank you for writing it, and allowing me to proclaim it” she said. “You don’t have to leave, you know, you can come back inside.”
I know, I smiled. But not today. I will be back.
I will go back. I know now that I am welcome.
To the little Church in the country by the lake.
The town has grown and the Little Country Church was bursting at the seams – so it and another parish nearby combined their finances and spirits and built a much larger, more magnificent church in the center of the town.
I have been to the bigger church and it is indeed beautiful, and one can see the love and thought that went into the planning of the new worship space. I will most likely go there for Easter this year again. But I will always hold dear the feeling I had as I spied the preacher through the doorway, and hearing her read my words, interwoven through hers.
I am still passionate about the Passion.