I’ve gone to church almost every weekend this summer. No, I haven’t had some dramatic religious conversion. No, I haven’t reawakened my passion for Catholicism. But there’s something there I want, although it isn’t the something I think most of the attendees are looking for.
Remember when you were a kid, and you couldn’t go to sleep without following a certain ritual? You had to have that special animal, or blanket, or both. The door had to be open, or closed, or closed to just the right metric distance. You had to play a certain song, or someone had to tell you a story, or some alchemy of events had to take place or else you just wouldn’t be able to sleep. The ritual wasn’t just reassuring, it was essential.
There’s a reason people call certain foods “comfort foods.” They represent our childhood, or the childhood we wish we had, the one that was stable, predictable, easy. They take us back to a time when we felt in control, or someone else was in control, and everything was going to be okay. Like those bedtime rituals of our youth, those foods make us feel safe.
For me, religion is like that. I’ve been Catholic on paper since before I was born. Although I don’t agree with the politics of the church and the actions of some of its followers and practitioners make me want to stand on soapboxes and throw things, it can’t be matched for the comfort of ritual. Stand when the priest comes in, read certain passages in a certain order with a specific set of songs. Stand, sit, kneel. Sing, pray, hold hands, chant, respond. In the Roman Catholic Church, it all happens the same way, every day, all around the world. The church is, for all its flaws, unified. A solid, predictable entity, lousy with tradition, creamy-rich with ritual.
But there’s more to it than the clockwork motions of the mass. At my church, my parents’ church, the same people have been going for as long as I can remember. I have watched children grow into adults, leave and come back with their own families. Others have watched me, and we know each other in that sort of way that people who have been doing the same thing for years in tandem know each other. The building itself wraps me in its soaring blonde wood rafters and faint lingering incense spice like an old blanket. I can sing along with all the music.
My confirmation sponsor, who stood behind me when I officially professed my Catholic faith in high school, who watched me give the keynote address at that same service, who sewed my first communion dress and conducted the choir in which I used to sing, waves me over every week. “Keep the faith, kid. I’m prayin’ for ya,” she says with a grin and a shoulder pat. Steady as the sunrise. She knows me for a person I haven’t been completely for a long time, but who’s in there somewhere inside.
The person that comes out and sits with me awhile in the pew, who listens to the homily and holds my hand when I kneel and cradle my head in my hands. The person who still prays when the Eucharist is raised high, who still tries to feel that stirring in her heart when she asks, “Please, Let it all work out for the best. Whatever the hell that is, let everything be okay.” You can say Hell in church, I’ve found, as long as you’re earnest about it. That person knows who she’s talking to when she asks these things. She knows someone’s there when she cries in the dark. She knows she’s not alone, but I can only find her between those walls, as my arms tremble, gripping the pew white-knuckled to raise me from my knees.
The movement of the mass is increasingly difficult for me. My head rides waves of vertigo as I sit, stand, kneel, repeat. My hands shake as they grip the pew in front of mine when it becomes the only solid thing in a world that has turned to ocean waves around me. Each week, I stagger forward to receive communion, praying that the floor remains solid beneath my feet, that the building doesn’t suddenly pitch forward, that my head doesn’t send me tumbling into the crucifix. I make bargains with the man on the cross: if I make these motions for you, if I do what I know will make me sick, you’ll keep me well. If I sit and stand and kneel here, you’ll let me do it outside too. For one more week. Just one more. And then one more.
And it works, it seems. Or in that place, I can convince myself it does.
It’s not that I don’t believe in the god of my childhood. It’s not even that I can staunchly say, with atheistic arrogance, that I know there’s no higher power, that I can absolutely refute the existence of a saving grace. I know that the church and I have several irreconcilable differences, but I also know the prospect of a life devoid of the comforting feeling of religion is bleak, dark and lonely.
And I’ve been finding that in church, this summer. Not the religious stirrings I used to feel as a teenager, when I followed sheep-like the beliefs of my parents, before I knew any alternative. Not the fearful obligation that I know drives so many of the faithful. Not even the guilty duty of a daughter trying to appease her very Catholic parents. The comfort of ritual draws me back, the safety of a solid island that, even amidst the turmoil of life, has never moved. Even when the teddy bear’s fur gets matted and scratchy, the child still clutches it close. Because it’s real, because it’s familiar, because it makes her feel safe. The church has become my teddy bear. My comfort. My salvation, but not in the religious sense. The comfort of a community, of a ritual, of a place where everyone knows who I am, even if I don’t know what that is.