What I miss most in my rejection of the religion of my youth is the solace of ritual. I was born, baptized, raised, and confirmed Catholic. And while my church was technically of the Roman denomination, my paternal grandparents (a McDonald and a Sullivan) very pointedly and proudly proclaimed our kinship with the Irish variety.
It seems overdetermined, then, that we worshipped at Saint Patrick’s most Sundays. This was a modern building — a true local parish rather than a moribund cathedral. The pews, paneling, baseboards, and rafters were hewn from maple stained blond. The flagstones were a cool light grey. The stained glass stations of the cross were pale, almost pastel, admitting copious beams of New England light.
The nave was slightly elevated, bordered by a polished brass rail. The altar was fashioned from a few simple white marble slabs. This was not a rich congregation. There was no use for Medieval ostentation. In fact, heavy gold cups, ornate scrollwork, jewel-encrusted censers would have set people too far from their spiritual servants, would have caused a schism in suburbia.
The acoustics were also humble. The organ in the balcony was a basic model, not a pipe-primed affair. The sound system merely supplemented the volume of readings and sermons, instead of blaring them into the brains of the assembled. I never felt preached at; I felt invited to meld my voice with the prayers and hymns of others. I felt married to a tradition much larger and more ancient than I could hope to understand. There were whispers and secrets, but there was also communion.
It was a comfort to speak and sing with men, women, and children whose belief systems and lived experiences mirrored my own. I’ve since expanded my horizons, explored the world, met moral people whose values I consider consistent and true, yet who worship in very different ways. I have made space for doubt and difference in my soul.
Yet there are troubled times when I involuntarily touch my forehead, then my chest, before drawing my fingers across my heart. There are times when I still breathe invocations of the Holy Spirit. There remain blessings and recitations that burn on my tongue. These motions and words still possess the power to reassure me. We give thanks and praise, indeed.