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What We Build: How Architecture is Changing My Relationship With My Faith

December 14, 2018
church blog st. francis

St. Francis Xavier Church in La Grange, IL

For my husband and I, finding the right church has always been a struggle. I’m not proud to say that we’re Goldilocks Catholics, who often find this church too hard and another too soft before settling on one that’s just right.

Part of this is because we both spent most of our twenties as lapsed Catholics who had fled the simple church parishes we grew up in. The ones that invited parishioners to eat mostaccioli in the rectory basement at week’s end, pretty much wrecking our every Friday night. And warned us of the ill-health effects of masturbation.

Our lapse in faith was also, in part, influenced by a hang-over of intellectual pomposity from our college years. For a while there, we became those insufferable atheist types who treat their unbelief like its own religion.  Thank God that was a short-lived phase. Even more than being a heathen, I just hate being a bore.

But we had our legitimate, more mature reasons for turning our backs on Catholicism, too.

We’d become enraged by the pedophile sex scandals that began coming to light in the early part of this century. The fact that our very human church leaders displayed some of the worst of human behaviors, leaving children – particularly young boys – vulnerable to sick and fallen clergy who were too embarrassing for the Church to bring to justice. This alone seemed to justify all of our less justifiable gripes about our religion.

Two things brought us back into the bosom of our faith.

One was having our first child. When faced with the prospect of raising our very own human into someone who will be a good citizen and over-all credit to our species, we  thought about what went wrong with us, and which we hoped to rectify. We also thought about what went right. How we turned out not to be that jerk who doesn’t tip, the awful neighbor who’s always ratting people out to the condo board, the parent who will host a birthday party and exclude only the handful of uncool kids in the class, then post pictures of the event all over Facebook.

Reluctantly, we had to admit that most of our admirable characteristics came from our grounding in faith. Even the meanest nuns and most whiskey-pickled priests, by and large did their part – however clumsily – of inculcating in us a deep and abiding sense of right and wrong that has served us well in our lives.

Dammit, we said. Those blue-noses were right!

The second reason we returned to our faith was that for the first time in our lives, we found a church community that we truly felt a part of. Thanks to my accidental meeting with a priest in a bookshop in a chic part of San Francisco of all places – something people of faith might call Divine Providence, and more secular types would say was the height of cosmic sarcasm – my husband and I got talked into attending mass at a local Catholic church. A sweet, unadorned mission-style church with dark wood and a bit of stucco.

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St. Gabriel’s Church, San Francisco

Honestly, we thought it would be a one-time thing, but we got hooked from the start. Out of nowhere, we found ourselves looking forward to going to church every single Sunday, listening with rapt attention to Father John’s sermons. He would talk about what it means – in word and deed – to truly love another being, and tackled sensitive subjects such as racism and sexual abuse with candor, but without the sanctimony that often accompanies such topics. Father John never put himself above sin and his sermons always made us walk out of mass eager to be better people, looking forward to the opportunity to practice what he’d awakened in our hearts.

Making the decision to leave California and move to Virginia would have been simple as boxed cake if it hadn’t been for St. Gabriel’s. We were that sad to leave our church and  felt we were doing our children a disservice in denying them the opportunity to grow up in that wonderful parish.

church blog st. gabriels

“We’ll find a place we love again,” my husband said. “We just have to believe.”

And we did. Soon after arriving in Virginia, we stumbled upon a monastery way out in the countryside, at the end of a road that ambled up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It had a tiny chapel and offered an intimate, meaningful experience for the odd jumble of Catholics who drove in from all over the county each week. Quickly, we grew close to the Cistercian nuns who made it their home and the soft-spoken South African priest who officiated our services. In that tiny chapel, we sat happily on uncomfortable little wooden chairs and once again looked forward to church every Sunday.

Father Joseph’s sermons were a bit cerebral, unlike Father John’s, which had been delivered with poetic language in an Irish brogue, no less. Yet they were inspiring and thought-provoking, weaving Nietzsche’s perspectivism into his Easter sermon for heaven’s sake, and offering forthright insights about the crises of faith he’d experienced throughout his life.

During the sign of peace, which is the part in Catholic mass when you turn to those around you and offer your hand and a kind word, we would turn to the nuns for more than a handshake. We’d get a hug and a smile, a whispered personal inquiry. “How’s little Josephine?” The sisters had prayed for our daughter when she was born deathly ill. That gave us tremendous comfort and we felt a genuine flow of love between us.

At the end of each Sunday service, when Father Joseph would say, “Mass has ended. Go out into the world and glorify the Lord with your life,” it felt like a directive.

As our sense of community at our new church grew, we attended monastery “work” days, when all of us who went to mass at the tiny chapel would come to garden or help box the cheese the nuns make on premises. They sell it in fancy little gourmet shops to folks who just love the idea of buying cheese from such a pastoral and holy place. You can hardly blame them, and the cheese is really, really good (this is a shameless plug).

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Boxing cheese at Our Lady of the Angel’s Monastery

Even after Father Joseph had been called away to head another monastery, we remained. And we felt it was our privilege to get out our checkbook when the plans for a new church were drawn up – a much bigger one that would accommodate the faithful who had grown so fond of the monestary. No longer would we have to stand, or get out the folding chairs and line them up at the back of the chapel where you can’t see a thing. We’d have actual pews and plenty of them.

When it was finished, the new church certainly was lovely. The stained glass is magnificent and the interior is both simple, in honor of the carpenter we worship, and gorgeous, with a nod to the glory of heaven.

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Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, VA

But there’s a problem.

The new design, while in the Cistercian tradition and perfectly appropriate, is awful. Built in an L shape, it separates the nuns from the congregation. The altar actually faces away from us, but not in a pre-Vatican II kind of way, where the priest would officiate with his back turned to the faithful, but facing the altar, and presumably, God. In this new design, we see only the side of the priest, who gives his sermon to the nuns, while occasionally glancing our way.

We know this is in the Cistercian tradition and what this monastery was built to be. The little chapel was never supposed to become a parish per se, it just evolved that way. There are several actual parishes around town that are meant to cater to the faithful in the way we long for. So, fifteen years into our journey of renewed belief, we’ve found ourselves adrift again – not adrift of faith exactly, but of a place to practice it with any real enthusiasm.

We still go to the monastery work days and are always happy to see the sisters we feel so close to and we love helping them out. But we don’t go to mass there very often anymore. Not even on the big holy days, like Easter and Christmas. We have a bit of cover since our kids are enrolled in Sunday school at another parish in preparation for receiving their sacraments. Our monestary doesn’t offer Sunday school. But the sisters know and we know the real reason we don’t come to mass.

And yes, we do feel a sense of shame.

See, Father John from St. Gabriel’s in San Francisco – the man who welcomed us back to our great and flawed religion – once told us that faith was our responsibility. It was not incumbant upon a particular parish to provide it and as Catholics we had to nurture and expand upon our own sense of meaning and self-knowledge. To expect anyone to do it for us, whether that be a priest, or good sisters or terrific homilies or a sweet country chapel is simply lazy and doesn’t, in fact, bring us closer to God. That approach is more like shopping for a good TV show.

He’s got a point.

But in these times of secularism, dissolving trust in our institutions and overall light-speed change, it’s hard for people trying to keep the faith. The formality and distance of the newer, bigger and better church we helped build at our beloved monastery is not the same place of warm affection and affinity that it once was.

We can no longer reach out and touch the sisters during the sign of peace, or even see them during mass. A waist-high iron gate now separates us from the altar and from them.

But the sisters always stay and talk to us after the service. They tell us to please come and visit and pinch out kids’ cheeks. When Sister Sophie’s parent’s farm in India was wiped out during a monsoon, everyone banded together to raise money to help them rebuild. We plan to make a big pot of curry for her this Christmas.

For all of its new design “flaws,” our church is still there.

Maybe, that’s what Father John from St. Gabriel’s had in mind. This is the next part of our faith journey. When we hold close what we’ve been given by the various religious folk who have helped shepherd us home, the churches that have invited us in and given us a belief in more than ourselves again. It is perhaps time we stop searching for the right architects and build our own house of faith.

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Some More Original Stuff

I’m writing a new chapter of Savage Island this week, and really shaking things up! To give you a hint…there will be a shark. That and other gushingly romantic and suspenseful scenes. Plus, I’ve got a lot of new stuff up on Patreon, including.

  • More Savage Island!
  • Writing on the Brink: 2 new episodes of my mini-vlog.
  • Snow surfing (don’t ask).
  • New visual inspiration for the epic series I’m storyboarding (that means plotting with words and pictures).
  • This weeks photo of Barney, my dog and writing companion.

Words, photos, videos and dogs right here on Patreon!

Now that’s some crazy spiritual architecture right there!

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From → faith, family

8 Comments
  1. Thank you, Victoria.

    Judith Baxter Proofreader/CopyEditor Judith@judithbaxter.net.nz T: 021797400 http//:growingyoungereachday.wordpress.com http://books&morebooks2017.wordpress.com

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  2. Lovely post, Victoria.

    I am a lapsed Catholic myself. Our Father John was called away – but while here, he managed to make our little bungalow of a church feel so welcome – the sense of community was quite strong.

    I might one day have a go of it again (this post sure is encouraging)

  3. Thanks you…it’s worth a shot 🙂

  4. That is a beautiful journey through faith.

  5. Thanks for this, Victoria. I recently read your book, Cold, and loved everything about it, except that it didn’t go on after page 243. Then I found your blog. I’m very happy. As a writer myself, it is always good to read something that inspires me to become better at my craft. Your essays never disappoint.

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