My friend and former classmate, Ted Wolgamot, writes compelling blog posts that are weekly reflections on the Bible readings used at weekend Catholic masses. His posts are found at www.drtedsweb.com.
“I was reading about a young woman, a white Canadian Catholic, who grew up attending daily Mass,” he wrote recently. The woman became disillusioned with Catholicism and converted to Islam.
She had “abandoned religion altogether,” according to the story he read, “until she met some kindly Muslims who led her to a mosque where she felt close to God, as if for the first time in her life. She says she discovered that God was no longer in the church she grew up in, but was “everywhere: in nature, in art, and in the welcoming faces of other Muslims.
“What I found remarkable,” wrote Ted, “is that, for whatever faults Catholicism has been guilty of through the years, it has … always been a church community that employed every possible physical sign to remind us of God’s presence in the world around us.
“Unlike other forms of Christianity which abandoned sensuous expressions of God’s presence in favor of the singular focus on the Word of God found only in the Bible, Catholicism has traditionally been characterized as extremely sensuous: art, statues, stained-glass windows, candles, incense, music, wine, bread – and the whole world around us, especially the sacredness of each person.”
Ted then reflects on that sacredness by commenting on a reading from St. Paul about how in the church we become connected to the many “parts of the body” that is Christ. “It’s in the community,” Ted writes, “that we learn from each other, are challenged by each other, are called to suffer with each other, and are able to share in each other’s joy.
“…We go to church, then, to be challenged – challenged by the presence of others who are different from us and whom we are forced to rub shoulders with, whether we like it or not. In short, going to church helps keep us humble, makes us realize we are united with those in every corner of the world, from basilicas to barrios, from palaces to prisons.
”Obviously, the woman who converted to Islam didn’t experience this, and neither do many others. I think this is why my wife and I so much like going to Mass at a church in Denver that is as diverse as they come but where you feel a solidarity with others that is absent from many churches.
I’ve written about this parish before. I would guess that it’s at least 60 percent African-American, Hispanic and Asian, but you can sense the spirit of unity. People share their faith, their cultures and their ways of being Christian in a non-self-conscious way.
Why do people fail to find God in church? Some may say it’s because you won’t find God anywhere, in a church or mosque or anywhere else because he/she doesn’t exist. I’ve written often on the subject of God’s perceived absence and will undoubtedly do so again, but this post is for skeptics who are open to God and religion.
I think people fail to find God in church partially because they’re not seeing “the forest for the trees.” We may simply be satisfied with fulfilling an obligation to God, to ourselves or to our families and fail to genuinely participate. And we may be focused on a God-and-me kind of communication.
God is everywhere
And somehow the message doesn’t get through that although God is found in the liturgy – assuming you are willing to make it the prayer it’s meant to be – he/she isn’t limited to that arena. According to traditional Judeo-Christian belief, God is everywhere, in everything and everyone. Perhaps the author of Psalm 138 (in Catholic bibles) says it best:
“Where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
Even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast.”
But what about church? As important as it is to focus on the prayer that is the Catholic mass – or any religious service – participants are missing the point if they try to worship in isolation, if they fail to see God “in the welcoming faces” of other participants. And though he/she may be found in the mosque, God is found in Catholic and other churches if we know how to look for him/her.
“We go to church to reaffirm one basic truth,” writes Ted. “No one travels to God alone.”