I trudge uphill in Seattle on a sidewalk strewn with broken glass, empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and a discarded mattress. I turn a corner and a cathedral towers ahead. Beauty, I think, in the midst of the gritty city. I make my way toward it.
Medical folks in uniform and business people speaking into headsets stroll by oblivious of their surroundings. I skirt them and the homeless man on the steps, weaving and grimacing to his own painful beat.
Inside I find a display rack with pamphlets for a self-guided tour, discovering I am at St. James Cathedral. I take a pamphlet, intending to read it, but am drawn inside instead by half-a-dozen people scattered throughout the grand expanse.
My gaze latches onto a Hispanic man wearing a backpack. He stands below a statue of Mary, reaching up to touch her feet. A moment later, he lifts his hand and crosses the air between them again, again, and again, then slowly circles the perimeter of the sanctuary stopping before an icon of Mary where he lights a candle, crossing it in the air before her repeatedly.
Next he enters an alcove ringed in wrought iron and kneels before a bronze tree branching around a bronze oblong—the Bible, the word of life? I guess at the answer, but this man, whether or not he is new to the city or the cathedral, seems certain—certain of the symbols and rituals of devotion, of his place in this church and tradition.
I on the other hand, feel like a foreigner. I don’t genuflect, kneel, rest my arms on the back of the chair in front of me, or bow my head deeply, as does a young man illuminated in prayer, sunlight streaming in from the cathedral dome upon him. I snap his photo, hoping it’s not sacrilegious to steal his privacy for my own enjoyment.
The picture turns out blurry. My penance?
I’m not Catholic. I was a spiritual nothing, turned Protestant in my mid-twenties, turned lay pastor of a very small church for most of my forties. Over the years, attending classes and workshops and retreats, I learned to borrow from other faith traditions, appropriating a repertoire of spiritual practices.
Today, taking a cue from the Hispanic man, I step into an alcove with a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus. The walls flicker with light from small tapered candles in spiky holders, calling to mind fiery crucifixes. Is it intentional?
I find an unlit candle and burnt matchsticks in sand. I use a candle to light the match, then hold it to my votive thinking, “This is for my sister and all those who suffer.”
The flame takes hold. It does not occur to me to pray for myself.
It’s been five years since I left pastoral ministry, four since my husband lost his job, three-and-a-half since we moved from our native California, leaving behind family, friends, local church, denomination, and town of twenty-five years for a new life in the Pacific Northwest.
While my husband waited for job offers that never came, he and I rebuilt the 1951 home we bought cheap, and I visited churches on Sundays, starting with my own denomination—a congregation I could sense was in death throes. I searched for a church that was thriving, a place I could worship without getting roped into volunteering right away, and where I didn’t make a mental list of what I’d do differently.
I found a vibrant and visually stunning Episcopal church where the poetic liturgy repeated itself week after week—something services in my own denomination, and in my own church under my leadership never did.
In an unfamiliar environment, in a sea of two hundred strangers, the words I read and repeated weekly anchored me. As I grew comfortable with the language and rhythm of worship, I looked up from the pages at those around me, and joined them.
But just as I found my place in church, my husband and I sold our house, moved, and bought another fixer house. This would be, we hoped, our new livelihood.
The effort of starting new again wore on me as I searched unsuccessfully for a church home in our new town. I wonder now how the church I served has survived since 1874 with rotating clergy, and more specifically how it survived me, and my whims, no matter how spirit led they felt.
I write all this in the cathedral (sacrilege again?) a tourist passing time between a medical appointment and a friend visiting from Eastern Washington. But sitting here, gazing at Communion table on the dais, a sense of reverence hits me as much as the sulfur of matches, the cool smoothness of the marble floors.
This sense of the holy, of God’s palpable presence, is something I felt every week I led worship without fail. Surrender to spirit is what I long for and can’t seem to find or give myself to in worship anymore, and I’m not sure why.
In another week I am moving to another town to another house my husband and I will fix and sell in two or three years, with no idea of when or where or how I will find or build a spiritual home. Emotion streams through me like the swath of light streaming from the dome. I lift my gaze toward the light, close my eyes and breathe deeply, a hand on my abdomen to feel its rise and fall.
After years praying aloud in and for a congregation, I choose silence.
I open my eyes to see I’m not the only person writing. A man wearing blue scrubs pens in a small notebook. Prayers for ailing patients? Or perhaps, like me, he’s writing to discover what it means to live a homeless faith outside of community and tradition.
The sun has slipped past, and in the dome’s pale glow this message is now visible high overhead: “I am in your midst.”