Friday, July 2, 2010

Staring into the Abyss

They literally nailed boards up on the door frames of the church to prevent them from being opened.  Police threatened to use a battering-ram to smash the doors down if they refused to leave.  It was a stand-off, but the 6 people inside St. Emeric Catholic Church on the near-west side of Cleveland finally yielded, exiting the church and taking both the American and Hungarian flags with them.  Reporters, police, and supporters were there to watch them exit the premises as a blacksmith scurried off to change the locks.  Surprisingly, there were a handful of protesters there to voice their dismay over the 6 trespassers.

Both the Cleveland and Youngstown dioceses have announced fairly ambitious plans to downsize, both eliminating under-performing parishes and combining existing ones in order to "better serve" the Roman Catholic congregations in northeast Ohio.  That's "code", of course, for the fact that attendance is down, which means collections are down.  Parishioners dread the thought of their church being shuttered. I've never been to St. Emeric, but as a church that's been in existence over 100 years, I can only imagine what must be going through the minds of the members, the same people who refused to attend the final Mass presided over by the bishop as a means of protesting its closing.

I thought of those people the other day as I drove back to the studio after having lunch with Gary.   We had an interesting talk about religion and where it is in our lives.  Both of us were raised as Catholics, but Gary has taken an interesting path.  I've sensed over our past conversations that because of his affiliation with a non-denominational church called RiverTree that he has pretty much abandoned Rome.  So the other day, I just flat-out asked him.  And it's true.  He said that the Catholic Church simply didn't meet his spiritual needs.  "It doesn't feed me," he said.  I thought that was a crucial way to phrase it.  He went on to explain how much more friendly the congregation is, compared to his former parish.  He also noted that his children actually enjoy going to church on Sunday.  He found it surprising that people took the Bible to services with them, something rarely done in Catholicism. And that joining a Bible study group allows him to feel like he's really on a mission to discover how to be Christ-like, as opposed to simply being told that you should be.

This is the second time we've had this discussion, and both times I admit to feeling mildly jealous.  We talked briefly about the state of my spiritual journey, and I was quick to point out that I had been at a rest-stop for some time, with no immediate help available to get the car running again.  I want to blame it on Catholicism, though.  One side of my brain thinks about the plight of those people at St. Emeric and I suddenly gravitate towards attacking the Catholic Church.  There is a lack of collections in the Sunday basket because there is a lack of members.   People, like Gary, want to go to Church because, well, they want to go.  But most Catholics go merely out of obligation, because punishment will ensue if they don't.  I'm sure there are those parishes that try to foster a Bible-study-environment, but many do not.  Kids don't like to go because the Mass doesn't speak to most of them, and it's boring.  Most priests are not good preachers.  The same readings are used and the same old songs are sung.  Again, I'm sure that there are a few parishes and priests who break the mold, but after living in Washington, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, I've had a chance to sample alot of churches.  Most do not break the mold.

Perhaps I have it wrong, though.  Was I looking for a Gary-type experience?  Am I still looking for it?  Maybe.  It turns out sometimes to be an awkward spiritual moment for me.  Those people at St. Emeric may also have merely fulfilled their obligatory duties as Catholic Christians, yet some of them were willing to risk arrest simply because they didn't want their church taken from them, regardless of the boring homilies and antiquated hymns.

That dichotomy makes it even more apparent to me that my quest lies at a deeper level than whether or not my pastor is a good preacher or whether he or she encourages us to bring our Bibles to Mass.  Gary asked me some pretty pointed questions, many of which go far beyond my views on a married priesthood or a change to the structure of the Mass or the role of ritual in Catholic ceremony.  Many of those questions I had trouble answering.  Do I believe in God?  Do I believe Jesus is God?  Do I believe that the Bible is inspired Word?

Do I believe?

I believe... that I'm in a precarious place.  I'm doing a spiritual dance between theism and humanism, East and West, doing what you've been taught vs doing what you feel.  Somewhere between the Baltimore Catechism and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a path somewhere.  I feel like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu,  traversing the barren desert wasteland.  But am I walking towards something, or moving away from something?  Am I looking for an answer, or do I already know what it is?

I feel for those saddened Hungarian parishioners on the near-west side of Cleveland.  Unlike the good people of St. Emeric, though, I don't have the doors barred shut.  Anyone's free to come in.  I'm just not sure if I'm ready to come out.


Image: dan /

Image: dan /

Image: Simon Howden /

Image: dan /

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