When we lived up at the Lodge on Vancouver Island, we had a neighbour about my age, named John.* John had come from Montreal to take the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training course, and then been hired as a staff member and outdoor leader. He had a girlfriend named Yolanda*, also from Montreal, and they shared the little cabin next to ours. We immediately struck up a friendship with them, and they were very good to our three kids. One day, the kids, my husband and I were piling into the car to head to town, a 40 minute drive down the mountain for mass. The conversation went like this:
"Where are you guys going on a Sunday?" asked John.
"To church," I said.
"Oh yeah? Which church?"
"The Catholic Church, St. Patrick's"
"You mean people out here still go to church? In Montreal, nobody goes anymore. I thought it was a thing of the past."
Montreal is, of course, in the primarily Catholic province of Quebec. I wondered if what he said was true. I remember going to mass with my French exchange host in the Atlantic coastal community of Port Cartier, Quebec, and the church being absolutely full. I did believe John in a way. Most younger people in Montreal probably did not attend mass anymore, just like most of the kids I grew up with, and went to Catholic school with in British Columbia who had stopped going. It is definitely true that the Archidiocese of Vancouver is thriving and growing, mainly due to the steady influx of immigrants to our shores from Catholic countries like the Philippines.
I read a quote from the Dalai Lama this morning,
All the world's major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
and it got me thinking about why I carry on with religion. I'm a bit confused by the Dalai Lama's statement and I'm not even sure what he means. How can you go 'beyond religion?' Isn't that place in the 'beyond' still religion, if it is grounded in a belief in God? Doesn't religion still have validity if it is used, like the Dalai Lama says (to me anyway) as a springboard to something he sees as more beneficial to the world today? I'm just not sure we can have one without the other. Well, I can't anyway. On second thought, perhaps the Dalai Lama is suggesting maybe we need to go beyond our religions as we know them to reach any kind of spiritual or ethical enlightenment.
A friend said to me once, "Did you know that some evangelicals are preaching that the Catholic Church is a dead church?" I don't think that is true, but I do know that the Catholic Church has been going through an identity crisis overall in this ever more secular, digitized world. Many in it think that by gathering a million young people together from all around the world and playing them Christian pop music this will lead to renewal. Others think that modernizing the music played at mass is the ticket. Others think the church should 'get with the times' and modernize overall, relax her moral standards, be more inclusive, etc. etc. In my adult life at least, I have never gone to church for the entertainment value (although I will laugh at a funny joke in a sermon), nor the opportunity to dance in the aisles, nor for the opportunity to see the Pope in person (although of course I would not object to meeting him). I don't judge others for their own motivations, but I know I am not the only one who values the church as a quiet and holy place where one can go and lay their troubles and their joys, their worries and their gratitude at the feet of an all knowing, all wise, and all loving Supreme Being and say, "Here, these are for you. Take them and make something of them as only you can do. Then if you will, give me the strength and grace to carry on in this crazy, beautiful, mixed up world in a way which brings peace, love, and encouragement to my family, my friends and all those I interact with." I suppose it could be argued that this action could be done outside of a church, but there is something comforting and encouraging about gathering with other people, who are all struggling equally, to do so. And, being a Catholic, actually being in the church is an imperative for experiencing Jesus as he comes down to commune with us in the mass. 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,' as the Good Book says.
I recall an episode of the crime drama Rebus. His young Sergeant finds Inspector Rebus, who we learn grew up in a Polish Catholic family, in an empty Catholic church, sitting in a pew by himself. "Do you actually believe this stuff?" she asks. "I try to," he says. "It's a great antidote to police work. There's something very comforting about seeing all these people in one place, trying to be good."
Even in the third book of the violent and graphic The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, we see a high level policeman, who is Jewish, going into a Catholic church because it is the one place he knows of where he can experience the quality of silence he desires.
That quality of silence can be hard to find in our churches today, but it is there, lingering in the shadows, waiting for us to put down our i-phones and other distractions. If allowed to be, our churches are an unshakable port in the storm, a shelter from earthly woe, and a gathering place for souls of all colours and walks of life to come in and be comforted and strengthened. (And here I do realize that the Church continues to deal with scandals involving lecherous priests and neglectful bishops - just for the record I think these guys should be punished to the full extent of the law. Any institution which is run by humans will face issues of human frailty, which is not an excuse, only a reason for more diligence when it comes to these matters.)
There is a sign in my daughter's new classroom: "Of all the things to be in this world, be yourself." I think the church as an institution should take this motto to heart and forget about trying to be anything but authentically itself: a place of beauty, of silence, of a two thousand year old tradition of ritual and service to the poor in body and in spirit. Authenticity is what brings true followers. Everything else is noise. The world will continue to rage against this institution, but then, it always has and always will; no matter what accommodations she makes to the world, I have a feeling they will never be enough to satisfy its restless wanting nature.
*names have been changed