I had not set foot in church in almost twenty years when I began looking for a community to provide a moral foundation for my sons. I was pointed at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, and found myself caught up almost immediately in their vision to establish commonality among all the world’s religions.
I was among them for only a few short weeks when disaster befell us on 9/11/2001. The minister was visibly shaken during her sermon that week, and one critic bemoaned the poor judgment she had shown in reaching out to an Islamic Center in the San Fernando Valley.
These two factors – the hope of uniting people of good will and the terrible cost of failing to do so – prompted me to start visiting the religious communities of the Conejo Valley.
The Catholic Church was not the first Christian congregation that I visited during this exploration. In fact, the evolving pedophilia scandal dampened my expectations that I would obtain any value in cultivating the priesthood. However, recognizing the strength of the Catholic community, I eventually concluded that I needed to experience the faith of the people in the pews.
The site was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s in Oak Park. The church has an unusual layout. The side entries funnel into an alcove before a pool of holy water. The crowd around the pool distracted me. I was feeling some anxiety, recalling my childhood impressions of the angry God. I turned toward the altar, and was astonished by the cross, set off to one side and dominating the space with a larger-than-life figure of Jesus suspended in front of crossed branches. Rather than anger, a deep enduring grief and sorrow beset me. Confronted with this image and personality of human suffering, my right hand went immediately to my heart, and without thinking, I held it out to him and thought “Use this for healing.”
Thus began a relationship that is so palpable and near to me that I never partake of the elements. That was meant for remembrance, and I am absolutely convicted that the time for remembrance is past.
There are several contexts in which that nearness manifests most powerfully. Early on, the passing of the elements itself would cause me to be overcome by sorrow. Tears would roll uncontrollably down my cheeks, and eventually I realized that the sobbing I heard around me was not unrelated to my emotion – a realization confirmed in part by the irritation expressed by celebrants. When Revelation Song was popular in non-denominational congregations, with the opening words I would almost collapse in grief, my entire frame shaking, and the people around me would huddle together in small groups.
I also experienced a particularly deep relationship with the crucifix at the Los Angeles Cathedral. Flanked by roughly shaped limbs and supported by the bruised torso, the peace-filled face embodies perfectly the savior’s surrender and victory. After my first Christmas midnight celebration, I waited patiently to address the cross, looked up into that visage, and – gesturing to the broken body – admonished “It’s time to clean all this up.” Later, I would stretch up onto tip-toes, pressing my hands against the sternum, trying to push strength back through the centuries to sustain him in his suffering.
And then there are the children’s choirs. They sing with perfect and innocent faith, free of the regrets felt by adults. At St. Paschal Baylon’s in Thousand Oaks, when they led the congregation in the Agnes Dei I felt the weight of heaven pressing down on me from above, an experience that persisted in other settings until I decided to push back.
Along with these emotional experiences came visions that I find very difficult to avoid reconciling against the verses of Revelation. I will summarize some of those in the final post in this series. I will conclude today with the culmination of my immersion in Christ.
When my father was working in the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he and my mother liked to spend time in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century came to be known as “Sangre de Christo.” I was conceived there, and born in Los Alamos. For my forty-ninth birthday, I decided to take a trip out to Taos to connect with those roots. It was a remarkable experience in many ways, but the most important insight came as I drove down into the LA basin from the high desert. A palpable feeling of hostility mounted against me. I wasn’t wanted.
The next day, Monday, I was driving out to work from Agoura Hills to Camarillo, and could not shake his presence. The urgency and strain of his struggle on the cross came closer and closer. I was in tears as I descended the steep and winding Camarillo grade in freely flowing traffic, wracked by grief and trying to project that I was endangered. But he refused to let me go. He knew that he was dying, and refused to die until the work was done. We wrestled, back and forth, and finally the image of that first encounter in St. Max’s came to me, and our equanimity was restored as he pronounced:
Our heart is beating still.