Looking for that old time religion
For over a decade I was moved by the idea of having my own “personal walk with the Lord.” That idea stood in opposition to what I viewed as the repressive practices of older Christian traditions, which I had never encountered myself but had built, through books and films and hearsay, and image that filled me with indignant repulsion. Liturgies, services spoken in languages I could not comprehend, time immersed in church texts that seemed decrepit and irrelevant seemed like barriers standing between me and a God that my teenage self longed to know without any intermediaries.
My longing for God was sincere. It was also deeply beholden to the American notion of the self as the arbiter of authentic experience. I wanted “my” truth; I wanted an experience of the holy, bespoke to me. I imagined myself to be breaking my own path towards the Lord, preparing to know him firsthand, and without the assistance of others. This stance seemed pious to me, but it also limited my knowledge of God to the questions I was able to ask. The questions of believers outside my time and culture held little urgency for me, and I could not even understand the value of what I was dismissing.
By the time I entered my twenties I had a faith that was deeply personalized and ahistorical. I felt free — I thought my faith was an authentic gesture unencumbered by rituals and superstitions of the past, fully reflective of the unique personhood God had created me to express. In its obsession with agency, immediacy, self-expression and personalization, my Christianity was the most American thing about me. I loved God, and I also loved how my faith made me feel like the hero of my own story.
In 2015 I was biking around Paris with David when we passed a graffitied cathedral adjacent to the Pompidou Center. It was the Church of Saint-Merri, built in 1695, and though it was young in comparison to some of the surrounding buildings it was the oldest church I had ever seen. Entering its sanctuary was the first time I felt confronted with the reality of how many believers, generations and worlds over, had lived the life of faith before me.
The church was filled with physical signs of devotion. The ground by every stained glass window was scuffed, the alcoves sheltering religious statuary were darkened from years of candle smoke. In the rows of chairs that filled the sanctuary, the seats were frayed from use. The sanctuary was decorated with the sort of religious trappings I loved to judge — incense, iconography, inscriptions in dead languages — and marked in ways that showed how earnestly all these things had been employed in the pursuit of God. I sat in one of the chairs and asked God to challenge my perceptions of his people.
I think God responded by showing me how tenderly he felt towards the generations of believers who have sought him. What I viewed with cynicism he viewed with compassion. He had seen people respond to the iconography that made Scripture legible to both lettered and unlettered believers. He had seen how the loveliness of the room and the clouds of incense rising to its rafters gave people a taste of the beauty and mystery that are part of his character. As I sat with the Lord in silence I felt his affection for the expressions of faith I had disdained. He remembered the people behind the rituals and traditions, understood their longings, stewarded their confessions and prayers, and was showing me the site of their worship as holy ground.
When we went back to Oakland I kept thinking about our visit to Saint-Merri. In my life of faith I’ve often invoked the metaphor of God as Father in the context of his posture towards me, without thinking of what this metaphor has said about my posture towards him. Calling God my Father has sometimes come with the deep self-absorption that children have in relation to their parents, for the way I loved God, even the way I was devoted to him, assumed that we were all that mattered to each other, that he was mine to interpret and know. Visiting Saint-Merri shocked me the way I had been shocked when, in high school, I saw a photograph of my mother laughing and sharing a meal with friends I did not recognize. It was the first time I understood how much of a life and history she had apart from me. Although my mother loved me and I loved her, in her life, I was not the measure of all things.
That shock was a gift. Enough has happened between 2015 and the present for me to understand that if I insist on my faith as something that is solely my business, it will die, or become so warped and malignant that bears no resemblance to the life Christ modeled on earth. For one, David and I had a child, and I realized how much my faith belongs to my family as much as it belongs to me. The questions I ask can no longer have only my life at their center, because I want answers that will also nourish my husband and our daughter. For another, the 2016 election exposed deep fissures in the American church, and I realized how my insistence on interpreting God in my own terms, concerning myself only with moral matters that interested me, was emblematic of the culture that had contributed to this divide. The individualistic faith I had nurtured was splintering the Body of the Lord I claimed to love.
For over a decade I reveled in that sense of solitude with the Lord, and I think it was necessary in the way it is necessary for a child to assume they are the center of their parents’ lives. That is a perspective meant to serve the growth of children, though, not the growth of others, and I think the visit to Saint-Merri was an invitation to leave spiritual adolescence and ask God for maturity. This was for my own sake as well as for the sake of others.
The spiritual isolationism I used to prize could never have given me what I wanted most, which was a fuller revelation of Christ. If my previous understanding of the holy imagined God as the God of my present, God on intimate human scale, the understanding of the holy I encountered in that cathedral was God as the Ancient of Days, whose holiness is vast and bracing, whose nature requires more than a single human lifetime to comprehend. Both are real, but in isolation, I would have only had one of those understandings and not both.
We visited more cathedrals after Saint-Merri — Saint Sulpice, Saint Germain des Prés, Notre Dame. What moved me at these subsequent visits was the knowledge that the greatest cathedrals were built over generations, with many of the builders dying before they saw the finished work. Their children must have assumed the labor and then given it to their own children, each generation catching only a partial glimpse of what was being formed, until one day...
The cathedrals spoke to me of the Church as a generational project, showing how the community of God and our ability to apprehend the knowledge of him require more than a single human lifetime, and how the most striking monuments to his goodness come from the accumulation of many. Within this understanding of the church and this understanding of how God can be known, I feel the sting of being unseated from the role of hero in my own story, but with that sting comes a new tenderness towards the stories that other believers, past and present, have written with the Lord.
The sanctuary of Saint-Merri was filled with signs of communion between the God whom I felt to belong to me and a people whose language and longings I could not comprehend, but whose knowledge of God I was invited to partake in. In my adolescence I had imagined God as a well whose depths I was plumbing, and here was a God whose story I was awash in, God as a current of deep water, stretching before and behind me.