It is sunrise on a clear morning as I write this before a window facing south toward the sun and the magnificent church known as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a few blocks west of the Mississippi River. It is a huge affair, that Basilica, with a classic dome rising far into the air, creating a vast interior space brilliant with tiled mosaics and rich with concerts of great music. Tomorrow we go to hear the world-famous Vienna Boys Choir open the Basilica’s Christmas season. It is well over 500 years since that choir was first formed, and a century since this Basilica was first consecrated.
I will not be raising my voice in song here, however, bowing to the harsh truth that my singing can make a dog wince and, given enough volume, could throw the most prestigious choir off-key. No. I will spend a few hours on Christmas Eve, along with my favorite candle-lighter and half-a dozen grandchildren and at least one new great-grandson singing my heart out with the humble congregation of Pastor Joe, a former bartender who tends his flock of souls in a plain little church in the pines along the White Horse Pike just west of Egg Harbor City. We have been showing up there for a dozen Christmases now, Pastor Joe and his congregation welcoming even the most mediocre singers and the most dubious supplicants. My singing, as with my religious wandering, causes no comment among plain people who prize fellowship and goodwill above theological niceties.
But seeing the sun bathe the Basilica this morning called to mind the private religious journeys of billions of people around the world; people wrestling with the mysteries of God, the purposes of our lives, and the inexplicable hatred that seems to root itself in a soil equally comprised of the nutrients of hope and the acids of fear, viciousness and violence.
I watched the television coverage from Paris, that city of great cathedrals and sidewalk cafés, and wondered how the world is to ever find peace. Millions insist that they have found the one, true god while other millions vow they’ve got an exclusive on the truth. Religious nuts of every flavor run around in wild-eyed fanaticism determined to burn out all heresy, no matter how many unbelievers they must behead, massacre and burn at the stake. Everywhere zealous opportunists reach for power over the lives of man by claiming exclusive rights to our souls.
But it’s the quiet places that I think offer our best hope. Not the austere alone-ness of the hermit’s cave or the monk’s cell, but the places where we meet in our daily lives and talk about the stuff of life; such trivia as the health of each others’ children or how to lose weight or where to find a new job. I suspect there is more true understanding of life in the chance talk between two people in the aisles of the supermarket than there is in the halls of Congress or between the pages of philosophical tomes. The nature of being human is that we reach out to one another for advice, for solace, for inspiration, for laughter and most of all for understanding.. Maybe that explains why so many loners unable to share their thoughts and emotions have so much difficulty in life and so often lash out blindly against the world.
Being as ignorant as most Americans of the distant churches of the world, I don’t know what goes on in the mosques and temples of faiths other than the one in which I was raised. I’ve been in local churches of various denominations, and synagogues, and to a Quaker meeting or two. But absent social occasions such as weddings, funerals and the like, I’ve always felt it a bit intrusive to check out the spiritual homes of others whose faith I don’t share – a sort of uncivil voyeurism to be avoided. My attendance at a Quaker meeting was by invitation and fueled by curiosity about services my ancestors attended in Woodbury a couple of centuries ago. I found it intriguing because there was no service of a sort I recognized. Much quiet contemplation and meditation, with an occasional offering of testimony by individuals sharing their thoughts on their own faults or the faults of the community.
I’ve attended black churches as an invited speaker in southern states, usually the only white there, and always greeted with courtesy. The preachers at those churches had passion and vigor, but I noticed it was the “amen corners” of influential church ladies who had the power and the workers to get things done.
My life thus far has not taken me to a Mosque or a Hindu temple. I confess I would welcome an invitation, if only to expand my understanding of the faiths sustained by so many millions.
© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins